Let Me LookArt
Even from among the graying walls of our college art studio, the mystical world of art has seemed untouchable. My professor wanders around the classroom gesturing wildly, slicing up the air with his hands and scatting jazz beats. This is how he explains art – the rhythm of it, the movement, the magic that occurs when a practiced painter puts brush or knife to canvas. For him, art is a religion dripping in some deeper meaning that remains hidden to the uninitiated. Looking at Cezanne or Morandi or Matisse he sees a rich vocabulary of truth and meaning.
I see skill and beauty steeped in a flood of pretension.
In “The Art of Looking”, art critic Lance Esplund charts his own artistic journey and his path to understanding the true meanings of art. Seeing Paul Klee’s Howling Dog on a college field trip, Esplund first “experienced” art, as he says, coming to terms with art as a life-changing, full-body experience. And yet every explanation he attempts to give as to what this greater knowledge looks like falls flat. The problem with voicing the visual and effervescent is that you can say the words as many times as you like, but until you actually see the world the way an artist does, it all just sounds like pure, unadulterated bullshit. And yet the artist is altogether unaware of that fact. They don’t hear their own bias, their own extremist craziness.
Certainly, we all know that the world of art has an eons-long history of gatekeeping. It was clear on my first day of college art class when the professor flashed up photos of anime doodles and boldly proclaimed “This is NOT art!” While we sat there in our little people-pleaser cloud of pretension nodding along to his claims. But when the time came to write a paper on Esplund, my mind began to shift. By then, I had already suffered through countless classes painstakingly reworking the same square inch while being told it’s just not good enough. It just doesn’t have that bam-ba-do-do-BAM! Of course, I couldn’t complain because “if you’re frustrated, you’re doing something right.” Wonderful. Now the elites are touting frustration as a marker of achievement, pride and understanding. Call me uninitiated, but is this really a world I want to belong to?
I’m inclined to believe that one sees a painting or other work of art differently when it is hung in a gallery or printed in a book – it is granted a sense of authority and portrayed as an emblem of some broad ideal. You are trained to look with awe and reserve criticism unless you belong to that elite portion of society that is deemed worthy of criticizing great art. And clearly these art critics do. Among Esplund’s critiques was that the diversity-driven museum exhibitions of late fail to see the universality already present in all great art (read: white, Eurocentric, upper-class art). That’s where he lost me completely. Esplund is trying to argue for a universality of art and yet criticizes attempts at inclusivity. Surely you cannot blame an atheist with religious trauma for not finding a personal connection with the solemn, pale, noble saints, and deities of Renaissance frescoes. Or a descendent of enslaved Africans to admire and get lost in portraits of their ancestors’ abusers. And when it comes to the process of creating or viewing art, how can you know or even assume that the ancients, the Classical artists, the old masters, the Surrealists, and the Modern artists all thought and all think alike? Are we not projecting a modern construction onto people who thought altogether differently? Why should we be aiming to look at a da Vinci the same way as a Mondrian or a Newman?
The art world does itself a gross disservice in pushing away its novices.
Creating an arbitrary valuation of ways of seeing is altogether unproductive. Someone who prefers to see art for its poetry can surely interpret such a meaning in a plethora of works regardless of the artists’ intentions in the same way that someone concerned with subject or color or light or line or all of those things would focus on that. We all look differently. And to boil ‘looking’ down to an ‘art’ is really to turn it into a science of determining relationships and analyzing ‘deeper’ meanings. Whatever happened to art for art’s sake? What’s so wrong with simply looking to enjoy a simple or scary or gruesome or lonely or sad or happy or repulsive or beautiful thing? What, then, is even the purpose of art? And why has it been turned into this elusively abstract entity of great magnitude? You’ll say I haven’t understood it yet (what a brilliant way of gaslighting people into denouncing critics as ignorant, by the way), and maybe I haven’t. But at the end of the day, maybe it doesn’t matter. It’s nothing more than another epistemology in the long catalog of epistemologies the human race has been collecting, cultivating, discovering and creating for centuries. Let people stand and enjoy looking, however that manifests for them. And at the end of the day, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
By Sasha Sklar
Art by Anna Wershbale