“When art is made new, we are made new with it. We have a sense of solidarity with our own time, and of psychic energies shared and redoubled, which is just about the most satisfying thing that life has to offer. “If that is possible,” we say to ourselves, “then everything is possible”; a new phase in the history of human awareness has been opened up, just as it was opened up when people first read Dante, or first heard Bach’s 48 preludes and fugues, or first learned from Hamlet and King Lear that the complexities and contradictions of human nature could be spelled out on the stage.
“This being so, it is a great exasperation to come face to face with new art and not make anything of it. Stared down by something that we don’t like, don’t understand and can’t believe in, we feel personally affronted, as if our identity as reasonably alert and responsive human beings had been called into question. We ought to be having a good time, and we aren’t. More than that, an important part of life is being withheld from us; for if any one thing is certain in this world it is that art is there to help us live, and for no other reason.”
-John Russell, Meanings of Modern Art
The first few times I went to museums, I hastened to walk through the rooms full of paintings, sculptures, and installations that gave me no impression other than delight, horror, or apathy. My little mind could not grasp the beauty that other people saw in paintings of apples and oranges over lace-covered tabletops. I found unthinkable how grim, macabre figures could exist in someone’s consciousness, let alone be sold for millions. All I could decode from my observation was that these creators were overly sentimental, and it probably took equally sentimental people to enjoy their work. The language of art was unintelligible to me, and I felt shut out by the high-brow types in their dark turtlenecks and high glasses of wine.
Yet, at the very core, I envied them, because I could see but not understand the joy and the depth of substance they get from standing before a masterpiece. The subconscious experience they spoke of was foreign to me. I could not fathom their reflection of universality and truth.
Over time, I gradually did, and it is with intentionality that I became more enlightened.
Keep looking at art, and make that a habit.
In the first few weeks of the year, I believe I have walked into more galleries than the past two years combined. I stepped into well-known places like Ateneo Art Gallery, Art Informal, and The National Museum of Fine Art. But I also stumbled upon lesser-known ones, all of which by accident — Tiendesitas’ floor full of wood carvings, paintings and antiques, a frame shop a few streets away from EDSA Cubao, and a small gallery across Bacolod Chicken Parilla near Timog Avenue.
In the same way we train our muscles when we regularly exercise, we train our eyes to see beyond the colors, strokes, and textures in artworks when we expose ourselves to different kinds of work. Each time there is an opportunity, seek out art, and the great thing about opportunity is that it can be made.
Engage with an art piece.
There is always more to it than meets the eye.
Gallery literature may, most of the time, sound snobbish and intimidating. Despite the best efforts of elucidating the style and spirit behind a piece of work, it keeps art exclusive to the artists — or rather, to the art collectors — just as lawyers live in their own world of legal parlance. I doubt most artists even talk with such air when asked about their work. So, I decided that the next time I feel my mind can’t follow the jargon, I shall not be resentful. I shall mind solely my connotation, and embrace it.
Many times, I hesitate to ask about paintings, in fear of being thought naïve, not realizing that in questioning nothing, I was naive. Whenever I counter that fear, I always walk away delighted to make a friend and to know more than I did before the conversation. I once asked a shopkeeper about an abstract on display, and he ended up teaching me how to differentiate a work of realism, impressionism, surrealism and sent me in a spiral of isms that I didn’t forget to this day. It was because of the relationship that formed through the experience that I learned. Art is the last place to be bashful. There is a home for everyone’s story.
More important than reading and asking is calling upon the memory and imagination. At times, when a painting strikes me, I close my eyes and try to repaint the picture in my mind with as much detail as possible. I then open my eyes to point out the details I failed to pick up, the objects, shapes, and patterns that were subtly used to communicate. I repeat this for two or three times, and little by little, commit the piece to memory, along with the elements that struck me. With that, I imagine what the painter tries to tell, and something about the world it reflects. I then share my musings in conversation with others, which births new meanings and a deep sense of belonging.
Learn about the classics through art history.
One of my solo trips was to Vienna. It gave me the chance to see Belvedere Palace and marvel at its collection of classical artwork. The paintings were organized by movement, which allowed the visitor a walk through history, and the chance to experience the phases in “the history of human awareness”. With one look at the ceiling, I understood the dreamlike sensibilities of older times, and for a moment I could feel what the Romantics felt. John Russell puts it succinctly, “Art had no rival on such occasions. It gave us what we could get nowhere else.”
Throughout that month-long trip to Eastern Europe, I watched countless YouTube videos that taught me about neo-classical paintings, art nouveau architecture, baroque sculptures, and other movements in history. I marveled at the columns, rooftops, furniture, and things I would have otherwise just found pretty.
Look at classical pieces to build a taste for art. Go to Europe with that as your main purpose. If that is not possible, visit local galleries with collections of fine art, and use technology as a means to enrich your experience.
Developing an affinity for art took me some time. Allied with my seeking and questioning of life’s many quirks and nuances over the years, my desire for it grew and grew. To me, there is nothing too lowly to try understanding, and with that mindset, I have gained a little wisdom and a taste for beautiful things. Art has merely opened its door for me to find its highest virtues, so I know that my best encounters with it have yet to come.