Art can seem frustrating, complicated, and boring. But art is essentially about making us feel. Comparing brushwork, backstories, and Baroque to Bauhaus can give you an intellectual high, but it isn’t necessary for appreciating art.
Art for art’s sake can sound appealing and avant-garde, but the phrase doesn’t actually mean much. Art inherently has a purpose, and that purpose is to make us feel. No artist finishes their piece, steps back, and thinks, “I hope everyone who experiences my work feels absolutely nothing and walks right past it.” Art seeks to engage, converse, shout, incite, whisper, provoke.
Sometimes the feeling provoked is happiness, awe, wonder, or excitement, and sometimes it is disgust, confusion, frustration, or anger. If a piece of art doesn’t draw your eye at all or spark anything, that’s great, just move on. If you find yourself stuck in front of painting dominated by swirling range of sharp shapes and bright contrasting colours, or a forgotten sculpture in a silent corner of the Louvre, or a series of panels illustrating the colours, light, and radiance of a waterlily garden from dawn to dusk, stay there and feel.
Before Paris this summer, I had a vague idea of what I liked in art. The city is gloriously full of museums and galleries. With freedom to wander and gentle focus, I would stop at whatever paintings and pieces I pleased, scribble in my notebook, and just watch. The idea of staring at art implies passivity and disengagement. Try watching instead.
Art benefits from time and engagement. You gain more from a piece by standing in front of it for five minutes than for twenty seconds. In the Musée de l’Art Modernée’s permanent collection hangs “Six Janvier 1968” by Zao Wou-Ki. At first, it looks like a pointless mess of black and white paint. “This is exactly what gives modern art a bad name,” some people might think. But if you stay and linger, you see more. It’s not black and white. Rather, it’s dark green and muddy brown and snow white, with the most fragile shades of pink emerging from brackish black. It feels like the struggle from winter to spring. It’s like the earth cracking and exhaling after winter has reached its peak.
Although thousands – sometimes hundreds of thousands – of people will see a piece, art can become intensely personal. Maybe you don’t know what school the artist was part of, who they kept company with, or what the light was like in their studio. But regardless of their brushstrokes or backstory, their work can become vitally important to you.
Artworks: “Rythme n°1, Decoration for the Salon des Tuileries” by Robert Delaunay; “La Femme aux yeux bleus” by Amedeo Modigliani; “The City of Paris” by Robert Delaunay; and “Six Janvier 1968” by Zao Wou-Ki.
All photographs by Sophia Vartanian.