Reading the signs:
- Art is not about ‘beauty’, it never really was, not even in the Renaissance: art is first and foremost a response to elements of life that must be expressed in ways which reveal their deepest meanings (for which words are inadequate) and their most profound impact (involving all the senses); sometimes, these can be called ‘beautiful’ in an aesthetic sense, the artist renders them as art, but they cannot be exclusively ‘beauty’ because sometimes they must perforce be ‘ugly’ to be ‘truth’, which makes them beautiful.
- Artists do not always make art to ‘communicate’, and ‘concept’ does not always apply to social issues. Art has always been conceptual but ‘conceptual’ as an ‘ism’ is a contemporary (meaning of the late 20th, early 21st centuries) movement.
- There isn’t one reading of a good work of art but layers of meaning moving deeper and deeper into engagement. The mind should be taken from subject to medium-technique–style to theme to concept and hopefully be inspired and moved.
Layer 1: it’s a summer landscape with a train passing in the far distance;
Layer 2 it’s oil on 24”x 48” vertical panel rendered with bold, expressive brush strokes and overlaid with red glazes;
Layer 3: the serenity of nature is barely disturbed by the train’s passage, but the tightness of the vertical orientation and the redness make it feel disturbing, unnatural;
Layer 4 the title of the piece puts the landscape and the train in Poland during the Second World War.
Layer 1: It’s a trio of colour bands running vertically;
Layer 2: it is done in layers of multi-coloured oils on canvas to a monumental scale;
Layer 3: the interplay of colours within each band and the relationship of the bands to each other create a sense of movement laterally despite the vertical orientation of the composition;
Layer 4 this creates balance even as it challenges it.
Over the Christmas holidays one year in the mid eighties, I was a gallery sitter for The Walter Phillips Gallery, a Banff Centre contemporary gallery. Guests and centre participants had mostly left for the holidays, but some stayed on for conferences or to go skiing in neighbouring resorts, and so the gallery didn’t close. Banff National Park is a gorgeous place, nestled as it is in the Canadian Rockies in Alberta, it was no strain for me to stay put on the Banff Centre campus and sit with some incredible art for a few hours every day.
One day, a group of about six men wandered into he building while exploring the campus grounds. I understood from their conversation that they were attending a conference. They walked to my desk in the hallway outside the gallery proper and asked, “What is this place?” so I explained that they were welcome to visit the gallery but that the art studios beyond, mostly painting, photography, printmaking, fibre and ceramics, were closed until the artists returned. Curious, they entered the gallery through its double doors and I lost sight of them briefly.
The Walter Phillips gallery was at the time – and probably still is - a vast, open space that could accommodate large installations. On that occasion, the work on display, and I’m sorry I’ve forgotten the artist’s name (and I couldn’t find it listed on the Banff archives site), was a group of metal sculptures, an eye, an ear, a mouth, a nose, each at least twice the height of an average man, arranged in the centre of the space, with seemingly unrelated, mural-sized photographs hung on the walls depicting crowds of people engaged in a variety of human political and social activities. The impact was stunning: these sensory organs, though gigantic, were unconnected to a central nervous system, to a brain that would allow them to really ‘see’, hear’, ‘smell’ and ‘taste’ the human scenes being depicted in the photographs. I read the work as an indictment of humanity’s indifference to or lack of insight about even its most obvious actions.
Imagine my shock and surprise when the six men, after maybe three minutes in the space, came charging out at me in a rage to announce, “This isn’t art, it’s GARBAGE!”
I am a tolerant person. I am an educator, after all. I have taught difficult subjects to resistant, even incredulous students for most of my long (I’m exhausted!) teaching career. I am also an artist, I know people have different aesthetics, different ideas about meaning, even disagreements about what is art and what is ‘decoration’. However, for a group of adults, men, attending a conference about what could only be an important subject to them to spend less that a few minutes in an art gallery and then condemn the art therein with such authority could not be borne. What a glaring illustration of the very thing the exhibition was about! I could not let it be.
“Come back into the gallery and I will prove you wrong,” I said, a counter challenge.
They were not happy but they’d thrown down the glove and I’d picked it up. They had to follow me back into the gallery.
I spoke for maybe five minutes, walking them through the exhibit and putting what I saw and felt into words, and then we spent the next hour at least going around the objects or sitting among them on the floor while the men made their own comments, asked questions, and exchanged ideas, each more engaged and insightful than the last. As they talked they concluded they hadn’t really hated the work, they had simply responded instinctively to its impact and ASSUMED they’d not understood it. They’d experienced the anxiety the installation created as if it were a personal attack.
I suggested they read the gallery’s texts about the work to see if their responses had anything in common with the artist’s or curator’s comments. “Good art shouldn’t need so much explanation,” one of the men said.
“You know, in the Renaissance, people had to know Bible stories, as well as Greek and Roman mythologies, to understand the art they saw. All the work was coded symbolically, people had to know how to ‘read’ them to really understand them.You may think it's 'good' or 'masterful' art because you've been exposed to those codes and symbols, even if unconsciously, all your life. So this business of ‘art speak’ isn’t new. The only difference is in the types of stories being depicted today, which need new types of codes and symbols. The gallery texts serve to provide a context for them.” So the men spent the next while reading the texts and discussing them. Once they got over the language, they realized they had understood the work pretty well.
As they headed out, one of the men told me, “You know, in hockey, you don’t stop to analyze a play during a game, you respond in kind, or more aggressively.”
“But you don’t walk out in the middle of the game!” I said. “Artists today are challenging you after all. The difference is time, in the pacing and rhythm of the interaction, in the pause rather than in the speed of the play. The game in an art gallery is more like the pre-game strategising.” I said, “Isn’t the real challenge in a hockey game understanding the ice, knowing how the stick responds and what the puck may do and anticipating what the challenger usually does in different plays before hitting the ice?”
When the men left the gallery, they told me, “This is the best exhibition!” I could not have been happier.
The content of the exchanges may be different, but every time visitors to the gallery I curate today have taken the time to engage with the work, even if it’s through a guided tour, a conversation with gallery staff or other guests, or by reading the written material, they have had a meaningful experience. They haven’t liked everything they’ve seen, or agreed with everything they’ve read, and that is very good. As I said earlier, not all art is about ‘beauty’.