A Question of Art

There are times when what is called art baffles me. People a lot more knowledgeable than me have asked the question: what makes something art? Obviously they’ve answered it, because museums and art galleries are full of paintings, sculpture, etc. that presumably made the grade. When I look at a Rubens, a Renoir, or a Michelangelo, I can, even though they may not be my cup of tea, appreciate the artistry, the veracity of the curves or perspective, the play of light on water.

Those concepts get lost, for the most part, in modern and contemporary art. The artists have done away with conventions such as representation in reaction to the world they lived/live in and have searched for ways to express what they see or feel. Sometimes I find pieces attractive for their own sake and leave it at that. Other times, however, I’m faced with works that are as opaque to me as a piece of obsidian.

This was the case today. We visited the Antoni Tàpies Foundation. Tàpies (1923-2012), one of Europe’s most famous European artist of his generation, was influenced by Miro and Paul Klee. His major contribution, however, was being the first to use mixed media, some of which we saw this afternoon. There were pieces I found interesting but others simply made me ask: who decides what is art?

It has always been a controversial question. I remember the outrage against our own National Gallery for buying Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire. People would say, “my kid could paint that!” or “It’s not art if I don’t like it.”

I’ve come to understand that, just like contemporary music, you must look at the works within the context they were created and how they advanced art itself. In short, you have to do your homework in order to understand them. I find that tedious, with no guarantee that with understanding (of often times esoteric concepts) will come appreciation.

With all that mulling, I’ve had to conclude that I’m hopeless. I’ll probably never understand nor appreciate some of the works in all these museums we visit, but that’s okay: others do. Since no one will expect me to become a curator, I can relax and look at what I enjoy, bypass what I don’t, and maybe, once in a while, stop to look at a piece and try to understand it.

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