Seeing is Believing: Why people go to art galleries

Seeing is Believing: Why people go to art galleries

Lydia Bews-Fullilove discusses the importance of art galleries in modern culture, and argues that they may be more relevant and affecting than ever before.

It is only when you’re confronted with someone who does not see what you see, that you are first jolted into questioning it yourself. Many people, now and then, whizz past street art whilst running some errand, not having to go out their way or to pay a fee to see art. But those who must live day-to-day in order to get by don’t have the time to indulge in abstractions, massaging some silly emotion out of a lump of marble or whipping up a storm in their head about the intangible problems art is supposed to provoke. By declaring an appreciation for art, gawping at it, and buying it, what on earth are we all looking for?

Sauntering into art galleries, you are armed with the knowledge that you are essentially going to be looking at objects combined together in such a way you haven’t seen before; new shapes, alignments, and colour schemes galore, materials meshed together to create something altogether new. Art supposedly breeds creativity., but perhaps few can actually claim to have been struck with a lightning-bolt of realisation whilst taking in a piece of art. Being touched by some stroke of genius or tackling a life choice that might set you on some existence-altering course of action is not so easy to orchestrate in a public setting, mainly because in places of ‘high culture’ it often feels as if you’re on display too. Making a foray around a gallery is a self-conscious performance, and if eyes search the works, they will also scrutinise their viewers.

Often, in galleries, it is as though we are all treading on consecrated ground, with hushed constraint hanging in the air, interspersed by exhibitionistic knowledge-signalling. Parents, mindful to give their children a dose of creative stimulant, cart about their fidgeting tots; awkward teenagers shy away their blushing gaze from bare painted figures depicted in the state of nature, and others shrug and poke fun at the whole shebang, shielding themselves with selfie taking to avoid the dirty looks cast their way. All the while, you yourself navigate that awkward moment when someone is idly hogging the forefront of the piece, but you don’t want to intrude because pondering a few splatters on a canvas seems to denote some higher plane of understanding – he must see things that others do not.

Now and then, you notice someone with an air of purpose in their stride, and a dark look on their face, committed to figuring things out. But raw feeling is usually sacrificed for art etiquette, and when walking about exhibits I know nothing about, I get a nagging little tinge of guilt, as though I’m not giving it the respect it probably deserves with a little polite research. There appears to be some unspoken rules and a range of acceptable reactions permitted in such a place to signify that no piece should be taken lightly at a split-second glance, as though bowing to some unseen god of culture: tilting the head to the side in appreciation, crossing the arms and putting out the pet lip as  though particularly puzzled, a pinching of the chin, rocking backward and forwards from the piece in a should-I-stay-or-should-I-go pose, and doing a double-take to signify that interest has been piqued, as if announcing to the room that you are not in fact some uncultured swine. And finally, whether leaving the scene with a lighter heart or double-downed melancholy, all is expressed through an air of quiet contemplation.

Art has the power to bring emotions to the surface, but rare is a piece that can evoke the instantaneous thrill of music which bashes about in your brains and tickles the air all around you. To be effective art has to be allowed in and thought out. Even with the most shocking pieces based on real-life, like Goya’s The Third of May 1808, the oil-on-canvas figures are not about to be shot, the scene has even less drama than if it were re-enacted in a fake firing squad before you. Yet for art to have any impact the viewer has to trick themselves into acting as if it’s real, or personally relevant to them, rather than the colour-coded combination of oily substances that it really is. Art is an irrational process that requires you to suspend your disbelief and just go with it.

Highly misunderstood, ‘contemporary art’ is the ordinary made extraordinary. The rise of photography has made a mockery of realistic art, painstakingly accurate and true-to-life. Why would we now want art to mimic reality? We already have quite enough of that. A misty glen, the taut muscles of Constable’s stallion, the sensual lips and supercilious smile of some fey aristocrat. It has been already been done and exacts no tax on the imagination. In times before photography it was excusable that most would have been in awe at the sight of painted depictions of faraway lands, or even parts of their own country that they could never hope to see. But now, the point of recreating reality has been lost because everything and anything can be seen at the click of a button, even a view from the peak of Everest as if cheating reality. Therefore, one could argue that modern art has nothing else to be but shocking, even if only by reading its price tag.

The case can be made for art being oh-so decorative and pleasing to the eye. But even then, few things, when stripped of their meaning to embody the good things in life – liberty, talent, love – stand alone as innately charming. It’s not the eyes themselves, the focus of so many poetic tributes, that appeal to us, globes of jelly enfolded into papery sheaths of skin, or whether their colour be ice blue or honey brown, whether the lashes fan the eyes to twinkle like the points of a star or luxuriantly flick off to the side – it’s what lies behind them. The same with art. A print of Picasso’s Weeping Woman hangs in my lounge. It verges on the grotesque but its impact hits home with the same force every time I enter the room, whilst also providing an instant talking-point. It depicts Picasso’s lover and muse, Dora Maar, who he recurrently painted as his weeping woman, this time after the bombing of Guernica in 1937. The woman, clenching a handkerchief between her teeth, is torn apart, her distorted face cracked into jagged  pieces like an eggshell. Anyone can indeed have an opinion on art, because it is wordless. For once, you’re not being told what to think or feel, which is actually a terrifying test of independent thought.

Art does not encourage you to think outside the box, so much as to temporarily enter someone else’s box filled with the contents of their imagination. In it, many art lovers have tried to sift, reaching for that one moment of realisation, the life-changer. That moment is difficult to come by. Perhaps it wouldn’t be appropriate – having people stumble around galleries with their mouths agape, or riveted on the spot pontificating on life’s wonders, breaking down in tears and rending their garments – maybe such emotions should not be made public. Besides, art is freedom of expression, and despite the rigmarole of gallery etiquette, does not seek the vast power or responsibility to enchain the doings of its viewers. Entrusting something so insubstantial as an evocative glimpse to determine your free will verges on reckless superstition, and that is something most would agree on.

Featured Image Credit: Pixabay

Lydia Bews-Fullilove
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