Marcel Duchamp once created a piece of art that was effectually a urinal. It was called Fountain (1917). He didn’t create it even. He simply bought it and installed it upside down a pedestal – submitting it to an exhibition under the false name ‘Richard Mutt’. He did this to showcase the idea of a ‘readymade’ work of art; the theory that art could be chosen by the artist, it didn’t have to be made by their hands. It didn’t have to be exquisite, or fanciful, or following the conventions of art history. He used the false name, I presume, to instigate a natural uproar rather than false acceptance of a recognised artist’s work. It worked, and there was initially outrage at the submission until it was discovered that it was actually Duchamp’s. This work has always fascinated me, and it epitomizes why I prefer modern art to your traditional pre-1800 stuff. You have to figure it out.
‘Figuring it out’ is basically what my art history degree involved. That’s what art appreciation really is. I’m no expert in the delicacy of a miniscule brushstroke and you don’t have to be, though I can recognise certain styles; Renaissance brushstrokes are always invisible as the works were meant to be an illusion of reality, and Impressionist brushstrokes are always broad and rushed, very visible, as the work is meant to merely be a brief impression of a fleeting moment. There will be a lot of art historians with the expertise to examine the skill portrayed in individual brushstrokes, but it is certainly not a pre-requisite. Basically, all you have to be able to do is stand in front of work and think, ‘what does this mean’? Sometimes, as with Fountain, you think, well this looks completely pointless – but that may be what you gain from it! Fountain was supposed to be pointless and random, an everyday object; that was literally the point. To show how artwork doesn’t have to be elite, and carefully crafted, it could be an everyday random object chosen by an artist, and repositioned as art. Art can be anything now – that is the pure beauty of it. And if art can be anything, anyone can understand it.
But, more often than not, they just don’t try. They think it’s too hard – too beyond them. I have been to a fair few art galleries now, and I am used to the endless pattern of people, tourists mainly, wandering like soulless zombies through – not really taking anything in or stopping to look at anything. They just begin an incessant shuffling through the gallery until they exhaust themselves and give in. So is there is a right way to do this, to see the works like a real art historian or connoisseur? Do you have to have a degree in art history to really appreciate a work’s worth? I am going to try to instruct you on how to act in these situations – and explain why it is a lot easier than you would think.
1. The first thing to do when you enter a museum – get a map. Look at the map. Throw the map away. They are constructed for tourists, and they will herd you, like sheep, to the famous works so that you can tick it off on a mental list. This is fine if that’s your thing, but if you want to have a more authentic experience I would use the map only to tell you how to get out – don’t let it guide you to one or two pieces of work, because then you won’t enjoy the others. If you want to try and figure things out on your own, then go it alone, and ditch the invisible arrows shoving you along a pre-constructed path. The thing is, there isn’t much to look at with the famous works because the chances are you will probably already know what they mean; there won’t be much to figure out. Have a look certainly, but spend more time in front of the works you don’t know – you’ll learn more.
The Mona Lisa, for instance, may as well be sign-posted in neon lights, to be honest. People often come in to the Louvre solely because they want to see it – it and nothing else. However, there isn’t actually much to see! It’s tiny, and whilst obviously amazing, there isn’t anything to discover or work out. It’s a famous painting – simple as that.
2. Okay. So you have landed yourself a prime spot, preferably on a bench, before a random piece of art that you have never seen before, but which interests you for some reason, or draws you in. Next? Look at it. Don’t read the work synopsis panel – just look at it. Really look at it. In an obvious way, don’t try and analyse the type of paint used or something – just look at it objectively. What do you see? Take notes, written or mental, on your observations, if it is a painting or a photograph; who is in the work, what are they doing or holding, what are their surroundings, does the angle of the shot suggest something? For instance, in a portrait a pile of books means they want you to see the subject as intellectual. If the photograph subject is a poor-looking black man in a run down area of what looks to be 1940’s America, then it’s probably a comment on poverty or racism.
If it is a modern art installation; what is it made from, what objects are there in it, what connections do the objects have with each other, does it’s shape resemble anything obvious (phallic shapes are often a comment on men and feminism, for instance), is there a relatable obvious theme (hundreds of recycled water bottles or compacted rubbish = climate change)?
3. Now, try and put your notes together and make a connection of some sort. You might not be right; this happens a lot to me still – some modern art installations are completely incomprehensible without reading into the artist and their thoughts. That doesn’t mean you’re wrong either – it’s subjective! For instance, I saw the below work when I was in Paris in 2013 – it’s an installation for the Centre Pompidou, by Ernesto Nato.
When I saw this piece I sat and looked at it for a while, from a bench quite a distance away, and I thought it was supposed to be tights. Female tights stretched with objects shoved in the bottoms like hollow legs, that resembled a cow’s udders. I thought it was by a female, and I thought the woman was making a comment about the objectification of women – turning us into a hollow representation of an animal’s breast strung up for display and ogling.
This would have been a fair observation. Only I had missed two crucial things – a.) The artist was a man. b.) I didn’t go close enough to the installation. I missed the central part of it that would have altered everything – the muslin (it wasn’t meant to be tights) was filled with a variety of strong smelling spices that arrested your senses. This would have given me a way different vibe, as it says to me instantly that the artist wants to fill the room, the gallery, with a sense; he wants to penetrate the space. Then, with new eyes, you start to look at the muslin shapes as things that are changing the space of the gallery – hanging between the pristine walls in strange malleable forms. The artist, you then start to realise, is speaking to something that is an important running theme in modern installation art – the relationship between the piece and the ‘white cube’ gallery.
I should say that ‘white cube’ is a term for the modern art gallery – a space that resembles a sterile hospital free of all decoration. It is simply contained of stark white walls, and it’s a harsh and unforgiving environment; it’s a famous joke that you see people beginning to look at the fire extinguishers and bins as if they may be art, the spaces are that free of clutter.
So, given this new information, you now see that you may have made that connection yourself. The muslin shapes hang into the bare formality of the room like you could touch them, the spices take over the gallery and make you really smell the piece, and the piece’s overall aesthetic is visually startling from quite a distance; the artist is using the white cube as a sort of canvas to try and take over the space, so that it becomes apart of the artwork itself.
4. Now, as I have implied, it is the time to look at the synopsis on the wall. If it is a traditional art museum, i.e. prior to 1930-ish, then you probably need to Google the work and it’s artist to find out whether you right in your deductions. If it is modern art museum, and you’re looking at a work like the one above, then the chances are that you will find a panel with an explanation written on it, and probably a lengthy one, in which you can decide whether what you had deduced was correct. In my case as explained above, I realised that I was completely wrong. But that’s okay, because you don’t have to be right. The beauty of modern art is that is it nearly always open to debate, and interpretation.
5. If you at a modern gallery, then finish by having a discussion with someone about the work. Go home, ring your mom, or turn to the person you brought with you, and talk about why this piece can be considered to be art. It may be made out of trash, but why is it art? Argue about it. This is the most frequent dismissal of modern art – ‘my child could have done it’, but why then is it art? How did it make it into this gallery? Remember Marcel Duchamp? He was making a fantastic point by signing his name Richard Mutt. He knew that a large part of why art makes it into a gallery is the name that goes on it – if Tracy Emin put a used condom on a beer coaster and enclosed it glass then it may well get into a gallery, even if she hadn’t actually any concept behind it.
But that word is the key to most modern art – and it’s what we’ve been getting at – concept. It usually has a concept. That’s what you’ve been trying to figure out, and if you’ve spent the time doing that, then you already have a reason for why it’s art; you’ve just justified it to yourself. Once an artist (I can’t remember who, it may have been Duchamp again but correct me if I’m wrong anyone) failed to create a piece for an art exhibition he’d been invited to show at. So he went to the police and reported a sculpture stolen, and then took the police report to the exhibition as the piece of art. This is extremely funny, and in a way shows the hilarity behind modern art. Sometimes, you know full well that it probably shouldn’t be art, but the simple act of putting it in a gallery makes it so, and that ‘s what you are arguing about when you think about why something is art. That is actually what a lot of modern art is commenting on – the gallery space, the act of installing something within its walls and what it means, and the relationship they can create between said space and their work.
So that’s it guys! Hope you enjoyed it, and I hope it was informative; please ask me any questions below if you feel you need to, or comment with your own gallery experiences!