How to Appreciate Art – Part 1

Some thoughts on seriously engaging with art – Part 1 – Or Why a Child Couldn’t Paint That.

In 1964 Pierre Brassau exhibited four avante-garde paintings in Goteburg Sweden to favourable reviews, but it later turned out to be a hoax perpetrated by a local journalist to put art critics to the test.

The journalist was testing to see if critics of contemporary art could distinguish between an authentic piece of art and a painting by a child, ape, or hoaxster, and the hoax itself was that Pierre Brassau was actually a chimp called Peter who liked eating cobalt blue more than actually painting with it.

This kind of set up, or variations of it, has been done many times, and not only by hoaxsters. There is the experiment where Luc Tuymans, “…one of the most important painters alive today…”, tested the public’s ability to acknowledge a mural he painted on a busy street; or the Washington Post article in which they had Joshua Bell (a highly acclaimed contemporary violinist) perform in a DC subway at rush hour to see how the general public would react to a virtuoso performing on a three million dollar 17th century violin if they had no idea who was playing it.

In Tuymans’ case, his street mural is largely passed by without a second glance, and Mr Bell is taken to be just another busker on the street, until one passerby recognises him and stops to listen only because she recognises him from his performance the previous night at the Library of Congress.

In both examples the results are predictable, indeed the average Joe often cannot tell the difference between authentic and inauthentic art, and on occasion neither can the pros, but so what?

The general knee jerk reaction at this point is to gun for the critics themselves. There is a lot of finger pointing, name calling, and shaming, as if some major point has been made and the facade of contemporary art has somehow been torn aside exposing behind it a vacuous vessel bereft of any value or worth.

You see! Art’s all just a bunch of pretentious pompous pretenders parleying preposterous hypotheses.

But it isn’t – for the most part.

Art is a kind of grand conversation with the past, present and future, and being aware of this helps in understanding what is going on in Contemporary Western Art.

Art, as with any conversation, is all about timing and context.

Much as great writers reference classic stories, reinterpret them or write essays on them, so do good artists who use color, line and composition as their words, and reference symbols and themes from within art past and present and, in the instance of geniuses like Picasso, art in the future to come.

To understand art it is useful to know what artists are trying to express presently in contrast with their own past work and the works of other artists examining similar or related themes. Should you take the time to delve into this aspect of art, it will reveal not only an internal conversation within each artist: “What am I trying to say, do, express or deconstruct?”, but an external “Grand Conversation” with other art and artists too, “I agree or disagree with this artist, notion, or technique and I present my own versions of them here, in this way, and this is why.”.

Knowing this places the artists into a historical time line, and from this context we can determine their contribution to art.

The thing is, just like meeting other guests at a dinner party, what one artist has to say may bore you to tears in seconds and yet another may captivate you for a life time.

That is where the real subjectivity in art comes from, the choosing of which artist’s conversation you want respond to, and because it is subjective it doesn’t necessarily mean the artist you like is contributing in an “important” way. “Importance” in this case being a measure of the range of influence, disruption, or impact one artist has on other artists’ work and how significant their ideas or techniques are when set within ten, twenty, one hundred, or three hundred year time lines.

This dynamic conversational history is important and oft overlooked when trying to understand a single, and ultimately baffling piece of work that sits outside of any context other than the show or gallery it appears in.

A perfect example of this is the artist Piet Mondrian, a great example of the quintessential misunderstood artist.

It is very difficult to understand why his art is so important without at least some idea of how he arrived at his paintings, the arguments and struggles he had within himself and with other artists, his early works compared to his later works, and understanding the historical context in which he painted.

His contribution to art paved the way for a slew of historically significant works and artists and his influences are still widespread 60 odd years after his death.

“A child could paint that!” is a common response to first encounters with Mondriaan’s paintings, but it is a gross underestimation of the sophistication of his work, and let’s not even begin to discuss Picasso to whom such a statement would be the ultimate compliment anyway.

What makes great art and artists is not necessarily their actual paintings or works of art but rather how much the ideas they convey, or techniques they pioneered or mastered, contribute to this “Grand Conversation”.

Is the artist only talking about ideas already explored in a more imaginative way by someone else? Is the artist bringing a fresh new way of looking at something old, or a new way of looking at the world and art entirely? Is the artist bringing some life to a very long and historical conversation that has seen and heard an innumerable amount of ideas and thoughts before, and is at times bored of its own company?

Will this artist’s ideas be remembered the next day through ochre hangovers and water colour recollections?

Traditionally, how eloquently and effectively an artist expresses themselves in this “Grand Conversation”, is how they establish themselves, and by a process of elimination the strongest and most influential ideas prevail and become historically significant.

Now, considering this “Grand Conversation”, how is one to respond to someone entering into it and deliberately hoaxing the participants?

An ape’s paintings may look like an avant-garde painting, even to the trained eye, but remember an ape would NOT paint like a human and such a new style, be it in the brush strokes, color or composition would be very exciting to some critics and collectors looking for a new conversation.

But once a work is revealed to be the that of an ape it can no longer be a part of the “Grand Conversation” even if it fools the experts.

If paintings were actual words the ape’s would read, “BLRBl BLRBL MWAH MWAH” and what kind of contribution to the “Grand Conversation” of art is that?

Mr Duchamp, please put down your hand.


The Pierre Brassau hoax
The Tuymans Experiment
Washington Post article: Joshua Bell
Joshua Bell
Joshua Bell playing in a DC subway at rush hour
Piet Mondrian
NY Times art critic Michael Kimmelman eloquently explains the” Grand Conversation” here and here.