Let’s talk about museums

Yesterday we made a family visit to a museum, and it was really something. We visited a Dada\surrealist exhibition on the concept of “home”, an exhibition by contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, and a gallery with an impressive selection of art (Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Cubist, Expressionist, Surrealist…). I had a lot of fun, but I got to thinking about Why. And that got me thinking about Art.

You see, for most of my life I was suspicious of art – it seemed like a small circle of people maintaining a monopoly on beauty, and arbitrarily deciding things were magnificent and sublime and works of genius. And I didn’t get it, as I talked about before. Well, now I get it more. I get Picasso, I get modern art, I get creative photography, I don’t get Hitchcock yet (which is an endless source of frustration for me) but at least I know the fault lies with me, not him. I still retain my suspicion, but now it’s aimed at a much narrower slice of art, the so-called High-Art, which I still believe can be Highly-Overrated. Nevertheless, I enjoy art. But why?

I realised that in the modern art gallery I wasn’t really looking at the pictures. I was too busy lecturing my little brother about art history and having my mind blown that I was actually seeing a Van-gogh, a Rodin, a Magritte, several Picassos. They had context and I looked at them through that context, as embodiments of aesthetic philosophical ideas, but not as artworks. I saw the unique style of Picasso and thought about his inventiveness, I saw the lines of Pollock and thought about his technique. I didn’t feel the intent behind the pictures, I didn’t try to extract the artist’s meaning. Which is fine! That’s one way to look at art, and an important one, too. I just hope I can come back and this time look at the art more closely.

It was different in the Ai Weiwei exhibition. Many of his works were enhanced by knowing their context – of the political side of his work, of his long and harsh critique of modern China. His depiction of himself dropping a vase is much more powerful knowing the vase is 2,000 years old. The tidy heap of wooden pieces is much more interesting knowing they come from demolished ancient temples. But a lot of his work spoke plenty without need for explanations: His wallpaper of golden cameras and handcuffs, arranged in intricate patterns, is both striking and self-explanatory. His wallpaper depicting the hardships of refugees in a monochrome flat Greek aesthetic concealed endless powerful little moments (my favourite: a group under a nylon sheet, in the rain, around one playing the piano – as heavenly harp players watch from both sides). The one that commanded my attention the most, though, was a large room with trees built, from dead tree parts, held together by rusting iron bolts and nuts. I read the context but it didn’t really matter. I knew the meaning but it didn’t really matter. This image – of dead, cut, reassembled trees – it left an impression on me. It was strong. It was stunning. It was ART. What I felt looking at that work was awe – it was awe-some in the original sense of the word.

And I think that’s the best part of art. You could think of what an artwork represents or about the complicated themes and references it holds, but those can’t match that feeling of awe and wonder. I think what made it click for me was when my younger brother commented on one item in the “home” exhibition, a small house with two pianos replacing parts of it’s walls (see above). He said it was cool. And I told him: “Yes, exactly! That’s what I feel when I look at art. It’s not the self-important ‘hmm, indeed, this is a brilliant use of this and that, very well made, indeed, hmm’. It’s the feeling of ‘Wow, this is really cool!'”

Or at least something along those lines.

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