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February 14, 2005 | by  | in Visual Arts | [ssba]

Why You Should View Art…

Ah, Wellington. It might be a small city but it is, nevertheless, noisy, busy and grey. Your house is noisy, manky and smelly. Your lecturers are a combination of the two: Grey and smelly, and increasingly monotonous. Pretty soon you’ll want to go back to that small town you came from, that you always mock, just so that you can sit outside without drowning in the lawns you haven’t mowed or blowing away in the Wellington wind. But it’s okay, I sympathise, and I have a solution.

When I’m out in Kapiti, where I’m from, I go to the beach every day. In Wellington it is as though my thoughts can only travel so far before they smack into the nearest billboard advertisement, set of lights or flyer distributor. This is why I’m so thankful for the thriving arts scene. An artwork is like a small window into the vast spaces I’m lacking, and makes my mind feel just as much like a bird released.

Yet art is so baffling to so many. Why is this? Art writer Ernst Gombrich said that “those who enter Disney’s enchanted world are not worried about Art with a capital A. They do not go to his shows armed with the same prejudices they like to take with them when going to an exhibition of modern painting”. Why is it that so many of us are so guarded in the presence of art? Art can do so much for us. And we need to be about as cautious when approaching a piece of artwork as we do a Disney cartoon. There are no rules.

Those who have learnt to approach art with an open mind know that it’s rewarding. The effect of art is like meditation that doesn’t clear the mind, but guides the passage of thought away from your everyday worries of having not enough time, not enough money and (if your flat is like most I know) not enough milk or toilet paper. A philosopher once said that all learning is remembering; if this is so then art is something that reopens lost passageways to hidden crevices of the mind… and it’s liberating. To quote art history lecturer Phyllis Mossman: ‘[Art] soothes me, reassures me that we are more than mere beasts running around surviving, earning money to get richer, chasing things rather than ideas…’.

So art, collectively, is an expression of humanity, it’s the gel that holds us all together – it’s a lonely, isolated world when we forget it. There are always obstacles preventing people from connecting: age, language, location, status, whatever. But there are never obstacles between a person and an artwork.

Ralph Hotere’s rebuttal to Paul Holmes’ infamous ‘cheeky darkie’ comment, in the form of his White Drip painting, was cutting, and he didn’t even open his mouth. Art can be more powerful than speech – because of its simplicity and brevity, and because art doesn’t preach to its audience; it invites them in to find out for themselves what the message is. It can also be a more accurate tool of expression than speech – Georgia O’Keefe said of practicing art: ‘I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way…things I had no words for’.

Picasso also famously said ‘I paint forms as I think them, not as I see them’ and by witnessing his works we can get a taste of his perspective on the world. It’s worthwhile! Part of what inspired Picasso to initiate the cubist movement was the idea that what we see of the world with our eyes is only a portion of what is there. A jug has a base, an opening, a spout, a handle. If we don’t see all of these things we’re not seeing the whole jug. On the one hand a cubist jug is a warped jug, on the other it is more like a jug to you than any real jug. Art attempts to lay bare the world we could never otherwise perceive. This is what makes it so enriching and enlightening. And it doesn’t stop at jugs.

A quote from Basquiat: ‘believe it or not I can actually draw’. But to artists this isn’t the point. Artists, as Gombrich said, ‘want to see the world afresh, and discard all accepted notions about… flesh being pink and apples yellow or red. It is they who teach us to see in nature new beauties of whose existence we have never dreamt’.

Not only can art teach us something moving and philosophical, each work is also the bearer of historical and anthropological information. The fashions and preoccupations of an era are always evident in its artworks.

In art we overcome all obstacles. There may be plenty of mountains high enough/ valleys low enough to keep me from getting to you, but not if you paint me a picture…


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