Do you like some styles of art but feel turned off by other styles? Most of us are usually drawn to the familiar, those things that we recognize and feel we understand. The less familiar we are with an artistic image, the less comfortable it tends to make us. Sometimes our curiosity about the subject matter or some other aspect of the art, such as an eye-catching use of color, kicks in so we want to investigate it to gain understanding and to become more familiar with it. But other times, the discrepancy between what we can relate to and what we cannot is too great, and we are put off by the differences.
Most of us could appreciate representational art when we were still quite young. We gravitated toward images that reflected the world we recognized. The more realistic it was, the more readily we could relate to it. Infants are sometimes soothed by being shown the photograph of an absent loved one. The image is familiar and therefore reassuring. Even before we learn to draw well ourselves, most of us can still recognize the meaning behind simplified drawings and even stick figures. Scribbling outside the lines in our coloring books prepares us to accept and understand story book illustrations that incorporate squiggly lines and loose watercolor washes. Their representational nature is still recognizable to us, despite their abstract characteristics, and we can still make sense of their meaning.
Eye of the Moon
But what about non-representational and extremely abstract work? This is where many people lose interest in art. They cannot relate to it because they cannot find any discernible meaning in non-representational or alternative forms of art. But this doesn’t have to be a non-changing state. We can learn to appreciate it by familiarizing ourselves with it. Perhaps that sense of recognition will come on a visceral level—as we consider how it makes us feel. Or we can ask what the artist was trying to accomplish or express through this work. Sometimes the enigmatic nature of the art is intended merely to make the viewer think in a different way or with greater depth as he explores possible answers. Certainly it may be easiest to simply say, “I don’t like it; I don’t understand it.” But if we don’t make a fair attempt at appreciating it, we limit our own understanding and the benefit we might be able to garner from it.
The often-used excuse, “My five-year-old can paint better than that” usually says more about the observer’s level of observational skills than about the artist’s painting ability (or lack thereof). Indeed, it may be that the artist is creating much as a child does, intuitively, focusing on the objects of importance around him and their most important features, or merely playing with colors and the feel of the medium as he applies it to the working surface. A more directed artist, however, whether formally trained or taught by experience, has learned to intentionally express ideas by incorporating the relationships of the important elements—color, line, form, compositional design, behavior of the medium, and so on, which brings a deliberate perspective and thought process to the work.
It is our role, as viewers of art, to seek out that perspective and thought process. Why was this work created? What was the artist attempting to accomplish? Does it serve the intended purpose? How did the artist fulfill his or her intent? The more we learn about art in general and specific artists in particular, the more readily we can find satisfactory answers to these questions and the more fully we can appreciate specific works, even when their treatment, style, materials, and other features are unfamiliar to us.
We still may not like the artwork if we find the subject matter, treatment, or some other aspect of it distasteful to our sensibilities. That’s okay. But we can still appreciate the work and thought that went into it and be able to understand and acknowledge the artist’s efforts, whether or not the resulting art appeals to us personally.