Wednesday, November 7, 2007

You Probably Know More About Art Than You Realize

by Duane Snider

Open up an issue of ArtNews or Art In America and you find endless jargon, obscure references, and highly subjective criticism. For anyone outside the elite group of market makers, the initial response to this kind of material is "What the hell is this?". Many critics in local newspapers are just as bad, regardless of the purity of their intent.

Sun Fall by michael Orwick

oils on canvas 11x14 SOLD

It always starts the same, like a reoccurring dream. A casual conversation with a very casual acquaintance or a complete stranger turns to the subject of owning original art. I mention my decades of collecting and ask if they own any art. All too often the answer is "No, that's not thing. I really don't know anything about art and I wouldn't know what to buy".
In a recent repeat of the scenario I tried a different follow up than my stock comeback of "Oh, you should think about buying some because it will change the way you look at art and the world." Instead, I made a pitch I've recently been thinking about. I said "you probably know more about art than you realize."
"Ok," she said, "I'm listening, what do you mean?" The hook was set, now I had to give her a clear and convincing argument to back up my brash statement. I began to deliver a brief outline on why she knew more about art than she gave herself credit for.
For starters we live in a society and culture that is awash with an endless stream of art in all possible mediums and styles. It is almost impossible to get out of bed in the morning, turn on the TV, the internet, or open a newspaper and not see some form of artistic expression.
This exposure shapes our perceptions of art which in turn shapes and molds our understanding of artistic imagery. In very classic terms this is what the philosophers, historians, and art critics might refer to as plastic experience.
In the academic world, the visual arts of painting, sculpture, and fine prints are called the plastic arts. In this context, plastic refers to the capacity for shaping and molding a medium. Traditionally, classic use of the phrase refers to sculptural mediums like clay, marble and glass. By the mid-twentieth century the meaning had expanded to include painting and fine prints. An examination of the plastic nature inherent if various mediums offers an excellent starting point for viewing and responding to art.
The Artist shapes and manipulates a medium to capture an idea, a message, or an insight for the purpose of finding a connection between the inner self and the environment. After completion of a piece the artist may offer the work for viewing by others.
With the display of a work of art comes the inevitable audience response and interpretation. Simply looking at works of art produces a reaction and response from the viewer.
The active viewer tries to find an inner connection with a piece of art during the viewing in a manner that correlates with the connection the artist strives for during the act of creation. The passive viewer will also react to art, but with a lower level of interest and commitment.
Regardless of the individual level of interest, the observer responds and in the process adds layer upon layer of context for interpreting art on a personal level. We all do it whether we choose to focus our attention or not.
When I frame art appreciation in this way, people who tell me they don't know or understand art get curious and engaged in the idea of viewing and responding to art. They think that maybe their view of art might have as much validity as anyone else's view, and of course, it does.
I remember noticing art at a very young age. A thick catalogue of Currier & Ives reproductions, the life-like painting of Glenn Miller on the cover of an album of glass 78 speed records, and the paint-by-numbers still life and landscape pictures my mother had hanging on the walls all had an impact on how I viewed artist imagery.
As a child I read countless issues of various comic books. They became an early addiction. Over the years I've seen my fascination with comics validated as they evolved into the present day graphic novel. Graphic stories defiantly shaped my appreciation of the entertainment potential art offers.
Consider the common thread most of us have with these kinds of experiences. We shape and mold our interpretation of art by integrating these visual experiences into our personal spheres of awareness. The process of growing an appreciation of art is as plastic as the act of creating art.
So, the question is, why do so many people believe they know so little about art? There are no easy answers. However, religious, cultural and corporate special interest groups have designs on controlling what people believe they know about art.
In the USA, corporate marketing groups manipulate the public's perception of art. The people who sell the high end original art only target the top eight to ten percent of the population for marketing their merchandize.
The big money interests in American art want to keep firm control of the market. The easiest control method is to confuse the issues and obscure any process that might help the public understand why art is relevant and important to our lives.
Most of what is written about art today is meant only for people in the cultural trades, that is, those in cultural institutions or in the business of selling art. Of course the high end collectors are part of that group, they drive the market. In the securities business the operative term is "Market Makers".
Open up an issue of ArtNews or Art In America and you find endless jargon, obscure references, and highly subjective criticism. For anyone outside the elite group of market makers, the initial response to this kind of material is "What the hell is this?". Many critics in local newspapers are just as bad, regardless of the purity of their intent.
It's no wonder people don't believe they can understand, or have an interest in original fine art. The kind of dialogue that nurtures or validates the esthetic context most of us acquire from everyday experience is conspicuous only by its absence, and is missing from the general public discourse on art.
Instead the public gets this incessant subtext of "Don't trust your instinct you developed with experience, let us tell you what you should consider relevant. We'll tell you what to buy". That's the message for the art market's target audience. For the rest of the public get a message like "If you don't get it, get lost".
Even culturally savvy people get conned by sharp salespeople. Gullibility is not a measure of how much or how little people understand about the various artistic manifestations that hold meaning for them.
That understanding is about the connections made between a lifetime of visual imagery and personal identity. It requires the effort necessary for developing a sense or personal curiosity and a desire to follow that path wherever it leads.
As for the art business, even some people in the trade don't completely understand the significance of the role they play in guiding people on that path.
If we gave the general public just a little more basic information about what constitutes original art and then left them alone to discover personal meaning and relevance, I believe more people would recognize the cheap imitations and demand the genuine article.
The "plastic arts" is an archaic term that offers some insights into contemporary dilemma of understanding art in the context of the culture we live in. The artist shapes and molds a chosen medium to communicate ideas. The perception, response, and understanding of the viewer is shaped and molded by life's visual smorgasbord and by external forces intended to influence the process. Free will and internal awareness guide us to the meaning and relevance that art offers to all who take the time to look and reflect.
It's all very plastic.

Special thanks to Duane Snider
The Art Counselor
All the best,
Michael Orwick
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