As I have been trying to learn more about art in my role as Director of Berliner Freiraum, I am learning a lot about art. That means reading books, researching, visiting museums, going on trips to visit other galleries, and doing my best to learn as much as possible as fast as possible. As I have done that, I have found that my appreciation for different styles of art has broadened. I have also found times when looking at certain works of art creates unexpected emotional responses. Sometimes I react very strongly against certain art works.
Why? As I have been thinking about that, I thought about how I have at times also had a strong negative initial reaction to a person. Have you ever met another person that you just did not like? A person who just rubbed you the wrong way? I remember a few times when that has happened to me. I met someone, and it just seemed like relating to them was harder than it should be. I have learned three different ways to approach that.
Go with Your Gut
There is the often heard approach, “Go with your gut.” This response argues that you cannot like everyone, and everyone will not like you. When you do not like someone, let it go and move forward. I think that this can be a legitimate approach, but not without it’s dangers.
My problem is that I often try to be too rational, and I do not always trust my initial emotional responses. This is because in my experience with this kind of emotional, instinctive response shows that it is largely based on an external evaluation. For example, several years ago I had a mohawk. Friday night I travelled to Manchester, England to run my first Tough Mudder with a couple of friends. Saturday morning I got a Mohawk. Saturday afternoon I finished my first Tough Mudder, almost 20 km with obstacles in the freezing cold English November. Sunday morning we went to church. I had not changed! I was the same person I had been Friday when I headed to Manchester. But the people in the church had never met me before, and because of my hair they were not all that excited to see me at first. From the outside, they could not tell that I had 16 years of experience working as a pastor.
Going with your gut can cause you to react wrongly at times. But, sometimes first impressions are right. Sometimes we can pick up on something about a person through your first response, and you need to pay attention to that. I have met some people who have an amazing first-impression radar. But not everyone’s works that well.
Fake it ’til you make it!
Then there is the “fake it ’til you make it” approach. You meet someone, you do not like them, but the situation you are in demands that you be friendly. What do you do? You pretend to like them until things change. At least that’s the theory.
And sometimes it works! At least, it has worked for me. One of my current best friends made a really bad first impression (I found out later that he had had a rough week, was stressed, and I got to experience the joys of him being in that situation as I met him.) Avoiding him was not going to be an option, so I decided to go beyond my initial negative impression, and over time I got to know him legitimately, not superficially. That made all the difference.
But this is certainly not always the healthiest approach. You can get carried away in “faking it”. And let’s be honest, people have a faking-it radar. Eventually they can pick up that it is just pretense. And then things could end up even worse. You can always be cordial, but you do not have to fake being best buddies with someone. That would not work anyway, and just end up exhausting both parties.
Dig Down Deep
And then, there is the third approach, which I will call the “dig down deep” approach. This is when you look at a situation and say, “That person really irritates me, why is that?”
Then you start to ask the tough questions. Am I reacting to outward appearances? Is my dislike really a sign of my own immaturity? Is this reaction revealing prejudices that I need to deal with? The key is not which questions you ask, the key is trying to figure out Why I am reacting in the way I am.
This is not easy, which is why I think so few people do it. Digging down deep means admitting that my reactions my be revealing something ugly about myself. It a
lso means that I have to take responsibility for my actions and do what I should to overcome any negative prejudices, or to become more mature, etc. It means I will be responsible for learning to react to people correctly and honestly.
Bridging the Gap
I am learning that I have the same reactions to art as I do to people. That should not really be surprising. Art and performance is, at it’s core, a glimpse into the heart and motivations of a person. When art is at it’s purest, you are seeing a creative expression of what drives and motivates. Our curator, Isabella Devinast, says often that “art is the last freedom we really have.” And she may be right! Only in art do people really have the opportunity to express what they are feeling without fear of punishment (assuming that certain boundaries are observed, of course!). If there are people who initially shock or irritate me, should I be surprised when I come across creative expressions of emotion that also shock and irritate me?
At first, it took awhile for me to get beyond the initial “impression” stage of enjoying art. It had to get past my “meh” reaction to a lot of artwork. There were three categories art went into. The “Like it!” category, the “Meh” category, and the “Don’t like it” category. I think my “Meh” category was the largest of the three categories!
I don’t know that I had to really “fake it” with art, I am not sure that works. What I did do was visit museums and galleries that had art that fit into my “meh” category, and what I often found was that I got to know more about the artist, or about the style itself. Just as one example, I read the book 1913 last year, which was written by Florian Illies. As I learned more about time in which many artists were developing, the scene in Paris as they were developing, and the interactions of people during this time – I began to look at work by artists such as Max Ernst and authors like Franz Kafka a bit differently. It helped me appreciate their art more, because I could begin to see the work with different eyes.
There are also where I have to just walk away from some art and choose to leave it (or place it) in my “Don’t like it” category. There are artists who push the boundaries too much for me. I see their work, and I cannot seem to get beyond the initial reaction to the works to be able to see what it is that the artist is trying to say. Much like the sign-waving homophobes who attempt to represent evangelical Christianity, the extreme of their message turns me off before I hear what they are actually trying to say. I understand that this inability to handle extreme messages may be seen as weakness on my part in the art community. I’m okay with that. I also recognize that I am responsible for my own reactions.
Having said that, however, I think that part of learning to handle the “freedom” of expression that comes in the art community also means that artists see and respect that people have personal boundaries. Art gives an incredible freedom to express, but sometimes one persons creativity offends others. Sometimes those boundaries need to be crossed and/or pushed. All offenses are not bad. As long as the artist also realizes that freedom also means that other people must be allowed to have the freedom of expression as well, even when that expression means expressing that they dislike what the artist has created.
I feel that there is a dual responsibility.
The artist has the responsibility to express themselves honestly. When the artist only think about whether or not the public will appreciate their work, or whether or not it is marketable, the work somehow suffers.
The person viewing art has a responsibility to try to go beyond just reaction and to think about the motivations of the artist. I am learning to recognize that when I view art, I am being given the incredible privilege of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Sometimes, I gain just a new perspective, which is a gift enough. But sometimes, I gain even more. I get a glimpse into the motivations and passions of another person. I can get caught up in their feelings, carried away by their reactions to the world. The key to making this first step is to realizing that all art was created for a reason.
The artist has the opportunity to tell a story. Some may disagree that this is the responsibility of the artist. Some artists are very content to let their work stand for itself, and let the interpretation come from the viewer. Other artists have trouble telling their story. If they could use words well, they would be authors! But sometimes it would be helpful if the artist also helped the viewer understand the “why”.
The viewer has the opportunity to respectfully interact. I was shocked at one of our exhibitions to hear one a gentleman interacting with the artist, saying how much a build was not liked by him, how it seemed to simple, and how he did not like abstract art. He actually said that he felt that Abstract art was what artists painted when they could not do “real” art. I wrote an apology letter to the artist the next day, and she graciously responded that after years as an artist, she was used to hearing it all. Even if that is true, that is a very disrespectful way to interact with someone’s work. What are some respectful ways? Find something to appreciate. (Color selection, technique, theme, something new, your favorite work, positive emotions are all examples here). You can also talk about how the art made you feel. This can be negative as well. “I was really unsettled,” and “That really disturbed me, and I would be interested in knowing why you expressed it in that way,” are respectful ways to interact. Of course, when works to really appeal to you, and you can afford to do so, purchasing art works is also a great way to interact! It helps the artist pay the bills and continue to do what they enjoy doing.
Feel free to comment below. What do you think about the responsibilities and opportunities artists and art consumers have?