Be forewarned: This post is long, verging on essayic, but it’s filled with excellent images, and I had oh-so-much fun musing it up; I highly encourage you to plow through it.
I’ve spent about a gazillion hours of my life asking this question: What is art for? Is it supposed to make a political statement, like Picasso did with Guernica? Is it supposed to rough up cultural norms like the Dadaists and Andy Warhol did? Should it celebrate the natural beauty of the world as did the Impressionists or explore the potential universal psyche vis à vis the Abstract Expressionists? The options are overwhelming.
However, I have lately been thinking a lot less about the purpose of art and rather more about its appeal. Most precisely, I have been asking this question: what kind of art do I like? And of my friends, this question: what kind of art do you like?
About myself, I realize how thoroughly I am drawn to abstract art, to simple images that emphasize color, form, and gesture. And yet I also adore skillfully rendered figurative images. I have a love affair with line.
Beyond what art looks like, I am hugely influenced by what it feels like to me. The reason why I like simple abstract art so much is probably the same reason why I make that kind of art: it feels like a true expression of the world to me. This idea resides at the crux of most of what I like; things that affirm my own experience of the world, that feel friendly and familiar, or, as I like to say, feel like home. I like art that’s playful or funny, a bit absurd even. When life is challenging, I take comfort in the ridiculousness of it all, and I’m drawn to work that helps me do that. I’m especially a sucker for tongue-in-cheek nostalgia.
I also like art that’s a little bit sad– wistful, if you will. Things that have a sense of longing and seeking. Mark Rothko always gets me in the gut. He said that with his paintings, he was looking for The Sublime. I’m not sure what Rothko’s idea of The Sublime was or if he ever found it; to me his work is neither tranquil nor euphoric, ideas that often go along with “sublime.” However, I do feel in his paintings a distinct sense of looking, and that I relate to: the endless search for something we feel akin to but which we cannot fully articulate or grasp. I suppose there is a certain tragedy implicit in seeking. One must always reckon with the risk that we may never find what we are looking for.
I’ve been running into articles about the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama everywhere lately, and I love her because she embodies this idea of reckoning. She’s been living in a mental health institute for decades now, by choice. Her paintings are images of what she experiences in her insanity; creating them allows her to be less controlled by the chaos of her mind. She says, “I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art.” I am infinitely grateful that my own mind’s chaos is not as extreme as Kusama’s, but for certain I experience some amount of pain, anxiety, and fear every day. The idea that art is a space to negotiate and cultivate understanding around that turmoil is welcome to me.
What’s more, I feel it in her work. Kusama’s oeuvre comes across as neurotic, filled with almost unvarying repeated motifs, but subtle shifts in form and arrangement seem to grapple with themselves, and a lot of her newer work with lights and brightly colored dots is even uplifting. But, I’ve also met people who can’t stand her stuff, who find it overly obsessive and “crazy-making.”
It’s here that the question of what art is for breaks down in the loveliest way. A friend of mine who keeps the visual arts blog firedskyward recently wrote this to me: “I absolutely love how when someone tells me such-and-such piece is their favorite, it is inevitably different each time…At the end of the day, I think it just comes down to a subjective definition of beauty.” Not only do people often like entirely different things, but we also like them in entirely different ways. And furthermore, we often like them for reasons other than what the artist intended. I like Damien Hirst’s spot paintings because randomized colored dots strike me as adorable and remind me of the candy I ate as a kid (again with the nostalgia). I don’t like them because they are a clever joke about how art collectors can be suckered in to valuing something mass produced on a whim; to the extent that that’s true, I suppose I just shrug my shoulders.
The art industry has a reputation for being pretentious and esoteric, perhaps because art is expensive and difficult to distribute widely, as opposed to more popular creative genres like film, music, and writing. There seems to be a misconception that there’s something to “get” about art. I find that unfortunate, and I disagree. The fun in art is not about getting it right, but in discovering what makes your day and then reveling in it whatever way makes sense to you.