Art is weird. Contemporary art is even weirder. Sometimes, pieces of every artistic era are very hard to understand and leave you with a faint feeling of “What the fuck did I just look at”. Everybody knows this and is probably familiar with the horrible moment when standing in front of an extremely strange piece, not getting anything, while the person next to you suddenly says “Wow. What an amazing work of art”. It’s hard to admit your total lack of understanding when everyone around you claims to love a certain thing because you don’t want to seem uncultured or like a philistine. We could now talk about the fact that probably just a very tiny minority of the people who say they fully understand a work of art by taking just one glance at it actually tells the truth in this case, but I’d rather talk about a way of becoming one of the people who “understand” art. First of all, you’re not doing something wrong when you wander through a museum and the realization “Oh. Ok. I can’t figure out what any of these pieces mean.” kicks in. This is absolutely normal. Most of the time you’re not supposed to understand it with one simple look. Artists usually hide their message quite consciously.
When looking at older paintings, the first thing you can do is finding out more about the historic context.
Art is always a mirror of the time and society that existed at the time a painting or a sculpture was created. During the Baroque times for example, people lived in constant fear of war and while the nobility tried to live life to the fullest with beautiful clothes, wonderful parties and gorgeous architecture and wanted to suppress the thought of war a little bit, artists began drawing still lives in which they showed flowers ( which are transient too) and other things next to skulls. “Memento Mori” -“Think of death” was the motto and a way to remind the people of their mortality. So here is the very simple explanation why the painting you see might have a skull in it when it seems out of context first. Taking a glimpse at the historic relation works with many paintings especially older ones.
Another thing you might want to try is taking a look at an artist’s life.
What did they experience? Did they live during a war? Did they have issues with their family? Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec for example was an artist who lived during the iconic Belle Époque in France. He suffered from a disease called Pycnodysostosis which caused him to never fully grow and made him a bit of an outcast from society, but because of his illness he started art in the first place. He made famous posters for the Moulin Rouge (“Lady Marmalade” is about this club) but also beautiful paintings of couples in bed (Lesbians, by the way. Which is pretty cool given the time period the paintings were created in). He pictured them not in some sort of erotic way, just two people who maybe woke up some minutes before and want to spend some more time together. When you see those pictures you can feel the intimacy and the trust between those people. But why did he draw something so…”normal”? Again, because of his disease. He never had a constant partner in his life, a spouse who loved him in this sort of intimate and unconditional way. It was something he missed in his life and something he wished to find. Seeing it this way gives the paintings some more context and give them more depth and emotions linked to them.
Next, think of criticizing society itself.
One of my favourite artists is Marina Abramovic. She’s specialised on performances and they are always shocking, weird, heavy and impressive at the same time. Most of her work is linked to her early life, too so many pieces explain themselves when you read her bio. Let’s take a look at my favourite performance by her, “Rhythm 0”. It was part of a series of five performances. In Rhythm 0 she let the audience take the action. Something that hasn’t happened before in the world of art or at least not in a way this drastic. She stood next to a table where 72 different objects were laid out. Roses, feathers, honey, whips, knives and a gun with one single bullet. Some of the things could inflict pain on people, some of the objects are usually connected with positive feelings. The audience was allowed to use these objects in any way they wanted to without having to face consequences afterwards. During the first couple of hours, everybody acted pretty shy, they gave her roses to hold and were very cautious but those actions escalated during the time the performance was going. Her clothes were cut open, she had wounds and one member of the audience almost shot her. With this performance she showed how humans reacted when they are free of any social consequences.
What is my personal guideline though is emotion. Don’t worry about understanding the art at first. Go through galleries and look at the objects and then see which ones will speak to you on an emotional basis. The truth is, many things won’t. And this is totally fine. If a painting doesn’t make you feel something, just let it be. Don’t even bother to do one of the things above because that might give you a full understanding of the formal aspects of it but if you don’t feel something by looking at it, it doesn’t matter if you understand the history behind this specific piece. Then it’s like looking at a random stone and reading all the details about it. It’s nice to know that this stone got its rounded edges because of the tornado in 1798 but…that’s it about it. A painting needs your initial interest. It’s not important if you think it’s ugly or if it’s beautiful, it needs to get your interest and make you feel something. Sometimes, this takes time. But try the emotional approach. It makes you open up a lot more because you’re not busy worrying about seeming like the most intelligent art-expert ever. Trying the emotion-method might even intensify the experience you have with some pieces.
So, yeah, don’t ever worry if you don’t get the message behind a painting, remember that liking a certain piece simply because you think it’s visually appealing is absolutely valid.
And it’s also ok if you never understand why this artist nailed his penis to the floor.