ART NEVER: How contemporary art ruined my life

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When I was 16, I got my first Taschen book, a fleshy pink 4 ½-pound monster titled “ART NOW.” Each page featured a different contemporary artist’s background and work. It’s hard to say that I ever truly enjoyed the book. More than anything, my relationship with it took on the tone of a sort of pseudo-religious fascination. As a bored young teenager in suburban Indiana, I wanted nothing more than to absorb into myself the book’s hundreds of pages of information on what I thought at the time was the height of art and culture.

I took to the task with a diligence that was surprising even to myself. Every evening after school, I would take the book from my carefully color-coded bookshelf and read an entry on a different artist. I stared at photos of their artwork until I felt I had given it enough attention and reread their biographical information until I felt I could recite it verbatim if I needed to. Next, I turned to the computer, sparkly blue composition notebook in hand, and took detailed notes as I read through as much information as I could find on the artist. I understood almost nothing, but being able to have a written record of my flirtation with contemporary art made it feel like an enlightening experience in a way that was almost never the case.

Once I exhausted the “ART NOW” book, I started spending hours scrolling through art news websites. I read about exhibitions in cities that I would probably never visit and auction drama that I could hardly decipher. As self-satisfied as I felt while I lost myself in the infinite scroll of artnet news, I also felt like I was drowning.

The more I learned, the more acutely I felt the pressure of everything that I didn’t yet understand. What was once as a low-commitment form of escapism from the mundaneness of being at a Midwestern high school began to throw brand-new stresses and forms of insecurity my way. All I had wanted was to feel more sophisticated and intelligent in a way that one day, in a distant imagined future far away from where I was at the time, would be charming and impressive. All I got was a deep-seated fear of never being intelligent or creative enough to make or understand art and a mind cluttered with frankly useless facts about artwork that I had never really liked in the first place.

After coming to Berkeley, I left behind my old obsessive pseudo-scholarship of contemporary art almost entirely. Aside from visits to museums and galleries, I began to rarely think about art. I was finally in the kind of major metropolitan area where I had always imagined myself impressing friends and strangers by casually dropping a tediously crafted remark about the trendiest artist du jour. And yet, I no longer had any interest in ever doing that.

I began to feel embarrassed that the thought had ever crossed my mind, let alone that it had consumed me for so many hours over so many months as I sat in my bedroom at home furiously scribbling down notes.

More than anything else, I felt guilty for seeing art as a form of escape into some higher, more elite plane of existence instead of just an extension of the life I was already living. The type of person who would be interested in hearing the details of the week’s art auctions was, I had found, not exactly the type of person I would really ever be interested in interacting with.

When I go back to my home in Indiana, I tend to fall back into my old ways — catching up on art news every day and flicking through the pages of “ART NOW” whenever the mood strikes. Now, though, the sense of urgency and desperation that I used to feel has all but disappeared.

I no longer feel like I have to absorb art into myself, and because of that, I finally enjoy it.

Contact Sannidhi Shukla at [email protected].