This summer, I visited 18 art galleries and museums around the world, ranging from the small, free Timken Museum of Art in San Diego to the slightly better-known and more expensive Musee du Louvre in Paris. I saw Monet’s water lilies at the Musee de l’Orangerie, a room filled with enormous ant sculptures crawling on the walls of the Saatchi Gallery and probably close to 100 paintings of Madonna and child. I saw an entire museum of brooding, dark, religious Spanish art at the Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla and one with exclusively pink-tinged, soft-featured, exceedingly white women at the Huntington.
I also saw multiple large black canvases hanging on the prestigious walls of the Tate Modern and Centre Pompidou. Just black canvases. Just black.
The art world can seem a little forbidding or confusing. It’s more than a little easy to look at Mona Lisa’s smile and think, “eh,” and when she’s surrounded by a throng of vicious, selfie-hungry tourists, indifference is catapulted into annoyance. I’d venture to say half of the people at the museums I visited were feeling something between disappointment and rage. Sometimes, I was one of them.
My favorite museum by far was the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, not because of its collection — though I’ve discovered an unusual fascination with Dutch naval art — but because of a particular exhibition called “Art is Therapy.” Philosophers Alain de Botton and John Armstrong reimagined the museum placard, the little caption with the artist, date and usually some background.
The problem is that museum captions are unequivocally boring, yet they’re the only lens through which most visitors see art. Historical context is fascinating for some pieces, but for many, information like the place where the artist was born simply does not matter. De Botton and Armstrong wrote captions intended to promote a more conceptual and emotional connection to art: what Rembrandt is saying about the value of company in “The Night Watch,” what Vermeer is saying about domesticity in “The Milkmaid,” and so on.
I found these captions, this alternate lens, actually helped me connect to the art on the walls — by being forced to relate to the universal themes de Botton and Armstrong argued artists were illustrating, art became much more personal.
In “Art As Therapy,” the book on which the exhibit was based, de Botton and Armstrong argue that the purpose of art is “rebalancing.” Someone who is feeling lonely might want to see what artists over the years have had to say about the value of solitude; someone who is feeling overworked might meditate upon David Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist.” Art, they say, should be used and targeted to fulfill a psychological or spiritual need. It should fill our houses and our offices and remind us not what school or movement the artist belonged to, but what they were trying to express about the human condition.
It sounds a bit lofty, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t be. Don’t we ascribe similar power to music and poetry? We might learn about schools and movements of poetry in English class, but when we’re reading for pleasure, we often pick up anthologies about certain themes — love, sorrow, nature and so on. Maybe we’re feeling particularly blue and wallow in some Coldplay or heighten our feeling of being in love with some Byron.
But there are only two narrow categories of reaction one is supposed to have to a piece of art. The first is the one everyone searches for but rarely feels: that deep, gut-wrenching, visceral connection to a work you might only experience a handful of times in a lifetime. It’s unexplainable and unpredictable, and it’s also enormously personal: I can’t tell you why van Gogh’s take on stars and their reflections makes me feel the way it does, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t feel the same.
For art that doesn’t strike us in this way — and that’s most of it, honestly — we resort to a sort of academic reaction; we’re supposed to admire a work for the artist’s technique, for the revolutionary movement it belongs to or for its illustrious history. These are the reactions museum placards provoke, but they capture the fascination of only a small group of critics, historians and other artists.
I think we can do better. The exhibit at the Rijksmuseum taught me that feeling an emotional connection to art doesn’t have to be instinctual or instantaneous — it can be developed. Thinking about what the captions claimed the artist could be trying to say and then consciously trying to relate the message to my life made me appreciate the works I wasn’t immediately struck by far more than learning about the background would have.
And when the captions weren’t there to help me, I found I could produce much of the same effect by exploring consciously, in addition to just trying to feel, what the artist was trying to capture. That unusually tender expression is a clue to a message about family, for example; the realistic depiction of fruit might suggest a theme of gratitude for what one has.
It doesn’t work every time, and there was art I still just didn’t like. But I think we need to lose the notion that art exists purely in the domain of the unconscious or in history books. I think we can better enjoy the art that hangs in museums by making a conscious effort to connect with it, and maybe, in the process, get someone else’s take on some of the fundamental themes that pervade our day-to-day lives.
“Off the Beat” columns are guest columns written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.