So you don’t understand the art.
Well, that’s okay. It’s a process. Much of Modern Art, Post-Modern Art, and beyond, is an acquired taste. But like that well-honed appreciation of fine wine or gourmet coffee, the benefits of developing that taste are well worth the efforts. If you will, allow me to walk you through the process.
Step 1: Figure out what you DON’T like.
So you’re in a museum, or gallery, or studio. Everything on the walls looks like a three year old threw up some green peas on a raw canvas. You clearly don’t like anything you see.
Okay, now try to understand why you don’t like it, and see if there is anything, anything at all, that you do like.
Maybe there’s one piece where the puke/paint actually looks like an ocean wave. Okay, realism probably wasn’t what the artist was going for, but it’s a good starting place for you. This painting holds something familiar for you, something you can grab hold of. So look closer at the painting. See all those brush strokes, the details you didn’t notice before? Now it doesn’t look so amateurish–you can start to recognize the amount of work that went into the construction, the application of paint, the composition. Step back. You probably still hate it and wouldn’t dream of spending $5K on it, but now you feel like you can appreciate the amount of time and thought that went into it. You don’t like this art, but maybe you can understand why someone would. Congratulations. You’re on your way.
Step 2: Figure out what you DO like.
I like to see art appreciation like developing a taste for wine. Most people start with sweet desert wines such as a Moscato or a port; then move onto the sweeter whites, then buttery chardonnays, then drier whites, and then venture into the lighter reds (maybe taking a detour through the blushes and roses) until finally coming to enjoy the spiciest and most robust reds.
Most people like realism (i.e., paintings that look like something you can recognize) right away. People generally like abstracts, too, that have a nice balance of color and negative/positive space (if you don’t know what that is, it’s okay). Now, push yourself a little bit—look for something that isn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill realistic painting but that you can still find pleasing. When I was first developing my appreciation for contemporary art, I found comfort in abstract paintings that seemed to speak to my need for good design. I looked for clean lines, patterns, and solid shapes, and I used that as my jumping off point. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the work of Paul Klee and, of course, Bauhaus painter Josef Albers and de Stijl master Piet Mondrian. I recognize that these artists aren’t for everyone; for me, however, it opened the door for me to understand what I did like, why I liked it, and which similar artists I might find appealing as well. It wasn’t long before I found I could also appreciate Mark Rothko and Frank Stella.
For you, you may hate the artists listed above, but I bet you can find something you do like. Use that as your jumping off point. Find out which artists are similar, but that you don’t like quite as much; now get to know their work, and try to like them as much as the first group of artists. Continue onward, and before you know it, you’ll find yourself with quite a repertoire of artists that you can enjoy, and that can enhance your life.
Step 3: Get a good grounding in art history.
I’ll admit it. I hate Monet. And Renoir. And Cezanne. Especially Cezanne. It’s safe to say I hate Impressionism. But billions of people don’t hate it. Love it in fact. So, it was important for me to understand why Impressionist paintings are so necessary to the development of contemporary art. I took graduate level art history classes in Impressionism, read books, spent hours in front of Monet’s Haystacks and Renoir’s portraits (yes, actually sat in front of the actual paintings, on the floor, staring). Not everyone has the time or the energy to make that kind of commitment to appreciate something they hate, but I wanted to make sure I gave it my best shot.
You can achieve a condensed form of this education by reading an art history text or two. There are many wonderful books out there–choose any one (or start with Arnason’s History of Modern Art. Begin your education with something that brings you up to speed on Modern art (starting at around 1870), and then work your way forward toward present day.
Even if you still don’t like a certain type of art, at least you’ve given it a fair chance. I still hate Impressionism. But at least now I appreciate it, and I understand its importance in the entire art history schema.