“I don’t like looking at art,” my friend told me as we listlessly lazed in my apartment, discussing summer plans. “I prefer hands-on exhibits.” Rather than taking offense, I was curious at her comment. It made me think about not only how we engage with art, but also what we perceive art to be. Contemplating her remark, I recalled going to an art museum with friends a few years ago. I still remember the awkwardness and ostentatiousness I felt as my friends zoomed through the exhibit while I, with my nose stuck up in the air, took time to “understand” the art. I remember shrinking back when my friend, curious to feel the material, started touching one of the exhibits. It wasn’t until recently that I realized I had mistakenly reduced the complexity and ubiquity of art in order to further feed an inflated ego.
One of my biggest blessings this summer came in the form of an English class on the American novel. One recurring theme of the course was social prestige, particularly the distinction between the high and the low. In most of the novels we read, many characters want to belong to the high: the culture affiliated with affluence. In one of the novels we read, Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” art becomes something everyday and pervasive rather than something confined to museum exhibits and highbrow discourse. The conversations and lives of ordinary people become poetic and artistic. It was through this understanding of Hurston’s book that I began to see the political value in art. It’s not political in that it necessarily advocates anything. Rather, art is not always static, placed inside glass cases. Art is a collective and community-based experience.
Likewise, in her essay “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag criticizes how intellectual interpretive doctrines (such as Marxist or Freudian) are practiced on art, often at the expense of “energy and sensual capability.” She ends her essay with a rather bombastic claim:“In place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” Sontag brings up an interesting point: that we are so wrapped up in intellectual analysis that we forget about art as an emotional and instinctual experience. Although Sontag makes an interesting point about the overbearing emphasis of the intellect, I find myself disagreeing with her. Interpretation, after all, is the only way we can grapple with life. Prescribing a certain set of interpretations to art can be restrictive and problematic, but it is only through accepting and understanding different interpretations that we can begin to relate to one another.
It’s interesting how we tend to perceive art as a solitary and individual experience when it holds so much potential for connection and engagement. Jennifer Rubell is one artist whose work takes a twist on what it means to interact with art, as her art usually defies the “Do Not Touch” standard of many museums. One of her works is “Portrait of the Artist,” a giant steel-reinforced fiberglass model of her pregnant body. The abdomen is hollowed out, and the viewer is allowed to crawl into it and assume a fetal position. The New York-based artist saw that this interaction created an intimate bond between the artist and viewer. Rubell further contended that, “Allowing viewers to transgress that boundary also changes their relationship with other viewers. If someone crawls in, somebody else will likely take a photograph and post it; when you have a photo of someone who’s crawled up inside my belly on the Internet, in a way, that’s a part of the work as well.”
Another of her highly creative and interesting works is “Old-Fashioned,” a freestanding wall holding 1,521 doughnuts by nails. A viewer could simply take a doughnut and eat it or take a bite and rehang it. Eating, after all, is one of the few times in our lives when we have a great excuse to engage with one another. Rubell’s work challenges the separation between seeing, thinking and feeling, suggesting that aspects of everyday life can be understood as artistic.
My general understanding of art and life can be traced with Arcade Fire’s hit, “Reflektor.” One of the lyrics says, “I thought/I found a way to enter/it’s just a reflektor.” It seems that there are no correct interpretations, just one interpretation built upon another one. What more do we have than reflections of each other and the effects we produce through our projection of the self? Through our interactions with art, we can produce relational meaning and understand our mutual impingement upon one another. Perhaps, more than just an erotics of art, we need a connection with our art, one that allows us to see our connection with one another.