Over the many past centuries, the upper class only had reasonable contact with art that was of a higher standard. Consequently, they understood its application and purpose. For the common, uneducated person the nature of those realistic paintings, without considering its meaning, were still pleasant simulation of nature. It is possible that since those times one is think that everyone should be able to understand Art. However, there is a good reason why this cannot be so.
Art, telling us in words, music and images, who we are, has gone through many changes in its form and appearance. They all correspond to an epoch in history when we experienced the lowest human standard fighting wars, followed by destruction and more hate, shifting to the highest achievements at intermissions, by, again erecting, constructing, inventing and creating from a nature given, spiritual capacity mirroring our existence.
A rather large group in society believe that painting is a simulation of an apparent reality, nothing more. They have always acknowledged the skill to execute an object as the main purpose, but considering the importance Visual Art has taken in daily life generally, there is no surprise to find a lack of understanding.
Language, such as, is the only creative expression that has some advantage in comparison with other art forms, which does not always mean that literature is widely understood but already the broadly distribution and accessibility is a benefit through theatre. The other advantage is that language has a practical use in everyday living and is a basic subject taken, so far, seriously in education. From that point of view, it is a personal choice and gift to develop this communicative tool to a higher level and understanding.
Music, in comparison, has no practical use, except for enjoyment and entertainment; it belongs generally to the performing arts. The participation as a performer depends on early education. Its effectiveness varies and the choices multiply with time. Through technology, we have no lack of exposure around the clock. Still, from having talent and mastering an instrument, it is a long stretch to compose music, unless one lowers the norm and bar, what we still consider as music and excellent, to child’s play. That applies as well to other creative categories.
Then there is visual art, painting, perhaps a stepchild, because it is a stationary and a soundless occurrence, restricted to one site only, if chosen at all, placed on a wall, waiting for a viewer passing by. For the reason that visual art (aside from applied art, which is important for advertising or some aesthetical use in society alike), does not directly touch anyone’s life, and takes partly a back seat in education as well. It is usually also the last item, if it has any value at all, that a household will acquire. Of course, we have acknowledged for many decades expressive drawings of children and taught art skills in senior classes but passed on very little about creative meaning or Art history. To some extent those instructions are as luxurious as music, and yet this silent expression, the interpretation of our visual world in subjective colours and forms, deal with dimensions that should be explored.
Although the artists have greater insight through extensive studies and practise, the viewer’s mind has the same opportunity to find knowledge that helps reading Visual Art. I am using the word reading for viewing a painting because there is an ABC that is form, colour, composition and more that becomes a style and language. Of course, reading a painting does not, as far as time is concerned compare in the same way than reading a book. (However, one should make the effort to take nothing for granted and give it more than fifteen seconds.) To begin with, there is, as established, overall better training and teaching for language and the written word, something we cannot claim for visual images. For that reason, alone the public looks often at a painting as if written in a different, unfamiliar code.
For every Style, so to speak, we have certain forms, colours, spaces, compositions, subjects, and even techniques in place. Looking at these or even more details in a work of art, compared with another, a viewer should normally contemplate over the many possibilities, unless a trained expert’s eye is searching for specifics that may show or not. But reading would also mean to think about those attributes mentioned above and come up with individual creative interpretations.
It follows; the prerequisite in reading a painting would acquire some knowledge and overview of arts development: First, we have a general impression and expectation. Unconsciously we ask ourselves – what is familiar or new, different, offbeat, and what appears to us like an old hat? Understandable, the latter will make the viewer move on faster. We could say the same about a work that goes beyond our understanding, except here we should consider our shortcomings. If anything, to agree will depend on interaction with the artist and other creative individuals on one end, and the viewer on the other end.
What then is the Artist’s objective?
I believe his/her first concern would have to be the task as how to follow an intuition of transformation truthfully, regardless what the viewer may say or think, or if it will make any money. Only then, the artist is free to create. However, few who set out have the drive and determination or lucky support to follow their star. Most artists settle for concession. Either way, they create by insight; work alone also on different levels with variant expressions. The same goes for the viewer whom we also could divide into, more or less, knowledgeable individuals. This would largely find a degree of understanding.
As pointed out –Some of us have accepted Visual Art as a language, as one reads literature or analyses music or various art forms – others merely believe that art should speak to everyone, something one can understand at first glance. (The latter probably mean the Applied Arts or Entertainment.) Then, a last group has no link to visual art at all. Regarding language, we would call them illiterate. Nevertheless, whatever stage one occupies the subject, minds should not become complacent. Active involvement is essential. In other words – one should try to seek knowledge in a field that has appeal and exercise a creative mind, so one can elevate the level of appreciation. Most artists take this path: They study, discuss, compare, and consider diversities.
Classical Art consists mainly of skill, technic, aesthetics (Composition), symbols, and metaphors. The first three qualities gave overall viewers always the impression that they understood its presentation. In other words, the simulation of figures, structures, landscapes were obvious – no guesswork. However, even so, the content as the primary aim lays often in allegorical symbols and metaphors, one cannot understand without necessary insight and preparation.
Changes that took place in the first half of the twenties century was ignored for the earlier strict emphasis on skill and aesthetics. Perhaps Surrealists excluded. With this mode disappeared realism as well. Photography replaced mainly that function of reproducing a sight or view. However, on the upside, the Impressionists showed new light and colour, a new point of view that no one had ever paid attention to before. The Cubists removed a spacious dimension on a given area, according to their own perception, but had a keen interest in composing and shifting planes, a view that is unrestricted to one point of view. This was the beginning to consider Art as an independent expression. In other words, visual art had now much less to do with simulation of an apparent reality but the mission was transformation. Everything that followed, they created within those guidelines. Expressionists emphasized psychological characters of objects or situations. The Surrealists gave an opportunity to retrieve the unconscious. Moreover, the abstractionist avoided simulation of outward reality entirely, alone to find reality within. (Perhaps another form of surrealism.) What followed were added changes and will continue.
My consideration of “Understanding Art” will leave it at that because much of contemporary or experimental art, as for example “Minimalism” or “Installations” need usually all the rhetorical help they can muster. It is art, that is often not very much to look at but one can discussed its approach endlessly, and would need a separate enquiry. Nevertheless, in general, once we inform ourselves about developments of art in history, we will expand our horizon.
Every epoch, meaning ‘changeover’ that occurs in society, has its own highs, and lows in every respect, and creative minds are the first ones reflecting on it – in many ways even to start the change. We must view art in this context. In every era, artists have striven to refine style or language in their meditative work and mirror the time we live in. Once we consider all possible angles, looking at art, we begin also to set aside inflexible judgments.
Besides, appreciation of Visual Art should not be limited to personal preferences, e.g., the spectacular or sentimental – as Sunsets, Horses, Seascapes, etc. We rather should contemplate over the alteration from old, universal themes into a new light and perspective. For the question: “What is Art actually?” it is best that we never know, because if we did, we would stop to develop and grow. One thing is certain – the most important knowledgeable ingredient in life as in Art is transformation, but without innovative perception, we would carry out very little. Inspired awareness should make involvement more enjoyable and above all more balanced.