When Art Likes You Back
I once asked an art collector: “What do you enjoy most about living with art?”
Without hesitation, he offered this description: “When the house is quiet, and everyone else is sleeping I like to go out into the dining room, turn on the lights and talk to the paintings. The ones that I like the most always have something to say to me. It’s as if they like me back.”
At the time, I found the collector’s reply eccentric — even Zen — but from where I stand now it makes more and more sense. Liking and appreciating works of art involves a give and take, and the idea of a idea of a private conversation in which a work of art responds by deepening its meanings and offering more profound pleasures is apt and beautiful. It is precisely this kind of conversation that wakes up our taste for art, which involves a kind of deep affinity or even passion.
In my dual career as an art educator and art writer, I have come to realize that I am surrounded by people and institutions that want to tell me what I should like in art and what I shouldn’t like. Everything about taste in art seems to have been externalized, institutionalized and circumscribed. No wonder so many artists try so hard to dispel all the cultural authority and “disrupt” since challenging external standards and measures of taste is one path to authenticity.
Museums, galleries, books, magazines and blogs all represent some level of authority and/or opinionation that seems to conspire to warp my authentic taste, whatever it actually is. Even when you have spent years looking at art the matrix of official taste looms and casts shadows on your choices.
My students feel the same pressure to like the “right” things and they generally look to me as some kind of authority figure that can tell them what they should like. Since I don’t want them to become “excellent sheep” — I’m an educator, not an indoctrinator — I constantly remind them that I can’t do that. Taste in art is personal, and although it takes work to develop and bloom, it is innate: not learned. Deciding what you like in art is as personal as choosing friends or lovers, and letting others tell you what you should like in art strikes me as rather like having someone else to choose a spouse for you.
Art is a magnet that draws strong opinions from those who look at it, rank it, collect it, write about it, or sell it, especially art world types who have some kind of vested interest. What you like or dislike in art is often seen as political by others, even if you see your taste as being strictly personal. Given that context, the idea of being alone with works of art and having a dialogue with them sounds really inviting. The collector’s metaphor — that the paintings could talk back to him in privacy — screens taste from cultural politics.
In fact, the word connoisseur derives from the French verb connaître which means “to know intimately” (even sexually). Certainly, artists of past generations understood this, and they relied on the beauty of things — bodies, landscapes and objects — to delight viewers into staring unselfconsciously and lovingly. Fast-foward to now and you will find that postmodern art often deals with abstract ideas, concepts and socio-political concerns. As valid, and as intellectually stimulating as these things may be, the result is often over-thought art that intimidates or lectures.
Art that is overly insistent on its own intellectual and political virtues can’t generate the kind of back-and-forth conversation that my collector friend relished. The images and ideas broadcast by a truly great work of art have to the senses first: they have to seduce you and then the “conversation” really takes off from there. Art that appeals to the senses sends a message: “I like you and I want you to like me back.” Art that makes an effort to “like” its viewers invites responsiveness and offers deep intuitive connections and sensual resonances.
In his book about spiritual enlightenment, The Power of Now, writer Eckhart Tolle has devastating things to say about what he perceives as our overly conscious, “mind-dominated” culture.
Because we live in such a mind-dominated culture, most modern art, architecture, music and literature are devoid of beauty, of inner essence, with very few exceptions. The reason is that the people who create these things cannot — even for a moment — free themselves from their mind. So they are never in touch with that place within where true creativity and beauty arise.
That is a very harsh statement, but I think Tolle is on to something. Contemporary art has been overly thought about and overly theorized, to the point that too much art has forgotten to “like” its viewers. The “liking” has increasingly been seen as the sole responsibility of viewers as the art itself has become more challenging or banal.
I think that Andy Warhol was saying something along these lines when he stated that “Pop art is about liking things.” It was his way of saying that in a modern, consumer culture we all needed to ask less of the art object. In other words, it was time to accept the fact that art objects, like products, had been stripped of their subtlety and mystery for the sake of consumerist immediacy.
I see it differently. In a fast-moving, fast-looking media/consumerist society art can be an antidote that can wakes us up to slowness–to passion– and nudges our innate taste into wakefulness. Great art transcends the particularities of time, place and culture: it can break through limits and cultural assumptions if you let it.
The next time you are around a work of art, shut out everyone and everything else and open yourself up to it. Talk to the work of art and see if it talks back. If it likes you and you like it, nothing else matters. When a work of art likes you — by offering you images that entice and delight you — don’t worry about whether or not others will approve of your taste. Turn on the lights of your mind, let everyone else sleep, and see if the work of art likes you. If it does, there is every chance that you are going to like it back.
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