As a co-gallery owner I have the distinct pleasure of observing people looking at art. Observe the observer, as it were. It is through repeated observations that I noticed something strange. The sharp distinction between those who are “in the know” and belong to the wild and wonky world of art, and those outside it, who have no knowledge and just look at art, and, well, try to make sense of it. Now the in-crowd I don’t care for much, they are quite a colourful bunch, but they have already been converted and rarely come into a gallery to procure an artwork: they mostly mingle, socialize and empty the wine. I am interested in the people outside.
If you confront the outsider with art, an interesting process takes place. Let’s follow them:
The first step is walking into a gallery at all. Apparently there is a large chasm one should bridge before entering. Art is far removed from the daily life of most, and I imagine some would rather take their arm off before entering a gallery. It’s a strange phenomenon as the same people who hesitate in walking into a gallery are the people that have absolutely no qualms about visiting a museum filled with dusty art pieces from centuries gone by.
The second step is taking in the entire gallery and looking slightly bewildered. If there is some information about an artist present they will devour it, and look around again. Comments are made about the space, about the first impression and then we move on, without further ado, to the next step.
The third step is standing in front of an artwork and looking intently at it, as if it is going to divulge its dark and deep secrets by the mere strength of the gaze. The visitor is trying to make sense of it, trying, sometimes, to make heads or tails of the bloody thing. It is called “prelude to spring”, but I only see some bent and rusted metal. What does that mean? If there is any explanation present it is read and then the artwork is observed again. Hopefully, it will speak.
All too often the fourth step, after repeated tries on the third step, is a glazing over of the eyes. The visitor just throws in the towel and stops any attempt at making sense of any of it. He or she will wander aimlessly and look repeatedly at the clock, or try figure out whether there is a chance of coffee or wine. It is somewhere between the third and fourth step that we have lost the visitor.
The fifth and last step is the hastily said goodbye, leaving the gallery and whispering to the friend or partner that art is not for them. And so we have lost a possible enthusiast and gained a critic.
This repeated observation reminds me a bit of the development of music in the early 20th century. After the heavy classical composers of the 19th, composers started to develop “music for music’s sake”. Experimenting with tone scales, atonality, using objects to create music and resisting against any and all classical tradition. The result is well known: the audience turned away from the exotic and dived into the likes of Cole Porter, a composer to which every modern artist is beholden. It drove the big industry of classical music into the ground. Composers forgot their audiences, and their audiences repaid them handsomely.
Now, is the same true for the art world? Has this strange and bizarre universe drifted away from the lives of its audience? Well, it depends, if your aim is to impact the life of everyday people, don’t hold your breath. They are not that interested. If your aim is to attract investors (note: I don’t call them art-lovers), there is room enough for that. Just develop a good marketing strategy.
Everyday people don’t go to art fairs, they don’t visit slickly marketed events to celebrate the “approachability” of art. And to be honest, they couldn’t care less about an artist’s view on society, gender or societal problems. Why not, you ask, and rightly you ask.
In one word, communication: if you strip away all the mumbo jumbo, every work of art is a mode of communication. The artist is communicating with the observer. You can’t avoid it: you make something that others may look at. They will interpret and try to understand. Your work is your message. However, communication requires that somebody understands the message. Now that is where most modern artists completely miss the point. Their communication has become so intertwined with high-minded fashionable philosophy and metaphysical intellectualism that your average onlooker just sees gibberish. What if that is the aim of the artwork? Well, might I compare that artwork to a floor tile? They both look… interesting, and communicate absolutely nothing. One of them is useful, though. In whatever verbal diarrhoea you wrap it up: if you fail to communicate something to any observer the artwork is about as relevant as the floor tile.
Look at the “Raft of the Medusa” by Géricault. This work of art sent shockwaves through the community, it was said. It is not a magical thing by the way: just a lot of canvas with a thick layer of oil paint. You could make a decent sized tent out of it. The same goes for “Liberty leading the people” by Delacroix. It would make a smaller tent, but still. However, the makers were very good in communicating their ideas to their intended audiences. And the audience understood.
So, there you have the answer to my most basic question to any and all artists “what are you trying to communicate?” (And if I must ask, what does that say about your work?)
Recently I was asked which artworks I deemed relevant for the current era. I had to think a bit, but the answer was glaringly obvious: “that decision will be made by posterity”. Artworks not deemed relevant will eventually end up on the dung heaps of history, or in museums dedicated to the bizarre and the macabre. I mentioned that it was calculated that during the Dutch Golden Age about 5 mil. works of art were produced in the Netherlands. Do they all still exist? No, som of them have perished, not as a result of war or hordes of barbarians, but just because someone just couldn’t be bothered to preserve them.
If a work of art does not communicate anything, why keep it?