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March 3, 2014 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts | [ssba]

How to Talk Art

It’s hard to know where to start. More often than not, it seems like art belongs to someone else. That it exists in a space penetrable only by the correct qualifications. That it speaks in a language not your own. Spoken faithfully only by those who take into account every reference to other works, every brushstroke or incision, every letter of the artist’s statement of intent. Forgive me if I’m making a sweeping generalisation, for I may be projecting my own anxieties, but it seems that if one wishes to talk about art, the onus is on them to convince anyone listening they deserve to be talking about art.

I often make jokes about how few people read my page. Not very funny jokes, but jokes nonetheless. I’m facetious as a defence. I acknowledge art’s lack of practical application as a means of not having to justify why we should pay attention to it. Even Barack Obama, less than a month ago, during a speech at a General Electric plant, acknowledged art’s irrelevance (he later apologised). It’s difficult to argue in art’s defence when it feels like art exists to sustain itself. I’m facetious too, because I feel I have to summon a degree of hubris to be able to tell you whether I think a particular piece of art is good or not. I have to convince you I understand what I’m talking about when often it feels like I don’t.

It seems sentimental to argue that art’s value transcends financial return, but I refuse to believe that art really does nothing at all. It can provoke. It can strive for pathos, or mourning, or something shared. It can go nicely with the drapes. It can cost a lot of money and not really make much sense.

Talking about art is often about refusing to be intimidated. To shake off the fear that you might be looking at the work the wrong way.

Art feeds on feeling, sometimes more explicitly than others. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell what art is asking of the viewer. The important thing to remember is that art can’t answer back.

Language can fail, though. You reach out for reference points and come up short. Sometimes, art doesn’t remind you of anything. Sometimes, it feels like your feelings are inappropriate – I look at Rita Angus’ portrait of Betty Curnow and I think about an anecdote a lecturer once told about Betty writing to the government asking for a stipend for cigarettes. I’m distracted when I look at Bruce Nauman’s work because of how much of a babe he is. But the thing is, you’re allowed to make wild associations. We see things by making connections, and art doesn’t exist in a vacuum of its own.

Art seems to distance itself from the viewer. Art can beg to be interactive, it can let you touch, every now and again, but such immersion is the exception rather than the rule. Unlike music, art doesn’t aim for a collective, visceral experience. It’s easy to tell when a song is sad because it immediately sounds sad. Sometimes, art hides behind itself. Like Félix González-Torres’ Perfect Lovers, what exactly is it about two clocks side by side, falling gradually out of time, that moves someone to tears?

It’s not Philistinism to be angered by a work of art. To question whether something even qualifies for the classification.

Maybe there’s a middle ground to find, between trusting that an artist knows their work is worthy of a response from you, and feeling at ease that your response is valid. An uncomfortable truth is that art is desperate not to be ignored. Art’s relevance is so precarious that any conversation about it should be appreciated. It’s scary at first, but it’s not as hard as it seems.


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