The Visual Arts: “So What?”

Rachel Graham 


After an argument I had with a friend during the summer about the merits of contemporary art – according to him, “culture ended in the 1930s” – I was left thinking about why, if for any reason, it was really worth engaging with. Although it is something I generally enjoy and am interested in, there are two things I am often left feeling after a trip to a modern art museum: one is a sense of “so what?” and the other, complete bafflement. It seems odd that in a world where we’re often surrounded by art of various forms, and generally taught to think of that as a positive, wholesome, life-enriching thing – with public money often being spent on museums and cultural centres and schoolchildren being brought to galleries – a lot of, if not most, people will express either apathy, bemusement, or not infrequently, outright disdain when you talk to them about specific instances of engaging with visual art.

The feeling of standing in large, echoey rooms with polished floors, trying to look at the objects in front of you for a suitable amount of time, while thinking more about how your arms are folded and how stupid your “contemplative” expression looks, is a feeling familiar to almost everyone from the time of school-trips, and certainly still is to me. Often a trip to a gallery ends up being more about the cute cakes they have in the stylish café than anything you’ve actually seen inside. This doesn’t seem to put me off though; I’m generally pretty sure that visual art is potentially a very rewarding thing. So what makes so many encounters with it so hollow? Some people will suggest it’s supposed to be a challenging experience – ok, fair enough- but you could also say that about staring at a rock for half an hour. Thinking about why it’s a challenging experience can prove pretty interesting though.

When I was arguing with my old-fashioned friend, I couldn’t quite identify what exactly about the commonly derided experiences of going to a museum, only to be confronted by a rough blob of a sculpture, a square of coloured paint on the wall, or an installation of seemingly unrelated items I wanted to defend. The argument kept coming back into my head over the next few months, and there were two things I thought might make us commonly hit a wall when engaging with visual art. One is the sense that whatever artworks might “say”, they don’t say enough to satisfy us, and the other is that when the issue of them “saying” anything at all doesn’t seem to be possible to grapple with, we’re kind of hostile towards the idea of objects existing to no ends beyond themselves. I’ll stick to discussing the former in this article in the interests of brevity.

“Our culture of instantaneity seems to bring with it a culture of flippancy. Big ideas are thrown around quickly and casually, to either disappear into oblivion if they don’t capture the imagination, or be Retweeted thousands of times and make a statement if they do.”

Both of these things, but especially the former, are affected by the digital culture we live in, especially by our modes of communication – texting, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter – which make everything so quick, effortless, and compact. With snapchat limiting your time to view a picture message to a few seconds, and twitter limiting your mode of expression to 140 characters; we haven’t only become used to instant gratification, we’ve gotten used to ideas being condensed into smaller and more instantaneous mediums of expression. These ideas are instantaneous both in terms of their creation and in terms of our appreciation and comprehension of them. In the time it takes you to go and see one piece of visual art that tries to convey any particular idea or question, a Google search could have returned to you thousands of expressions of that same thing. When a sentence could have expressed something that the sculpture you’re looking at – which took weeks to make – is also expressing, and got to an incomparably larger audience to boot, the object can seem so superfluous, so self-indulgent.

Our culture of instantaneity seems to bring with it a culture of flippancy. Big ideas are thrown around quickly and casually, to either disappear into oblivion if they don’t capture the imagination, or be retweeted thousands of times and make a statement if they do. The Proclaimer of the idea is under little pressure to justify the value of expressing what he is expressing. The ease with which we can broadcast opinions allows us to just kind of “throw them out there” and see how they’re received. In the case of someone making a statement or expressing an idea through the medium of the visual arts – be that painting, printing, sculpture, installation, what have you – the same casualness is not available to them. The artists not only have to have good ideas, they have to have good ideas worthy of spending weeks or months forming into physical objects. This expectation leads us to be disappointed with almost anything the artwork turns out to be saying to us. No motive behind the making of the object can satisfy us when we are so used to getting so many things that arise from so little time and so little effort on the internet. The effort always seems to be disproportionate to the result, leading to that cynical feeling of “so what?” people seem to have a lot of the time in contemporary art galleries.

These days, our modes of communication, expression and information distribution are so divorced from physical objects that when confronted with the physical significance of objects in galleries and museums, we expect them to tell us something, or give us something that we cannot get anywhere else. This, in a certain sense is legitimate because the medium of expression itself does give us something that we can’t get from other mediums. But, in terms of what motivates those objects, I think our expectations probably act as a barrier to engaging with them. Humans have a general bank of ideas and things that are interesting and relevant to them, and when people make art they are just trying to express those things that we all express in facebook statuses in a different way. Keeping these concepts in mind definitely makes me feel less skeptical and more open-minded towards art and its merits.

There is a tendency to think of art and artists as “pretentious”. I think this is largely connected to the fact that they put emphasis and effort into things people disregard as not worthy enough of that attention. This is part of a larger, ever irritating attitude of irony that seems to have dominated conversation on almost every topic for the past few years; an attitude that devalues genuine concern that people hold for things and is always suspicious of sincerity. Surely in an environment where the option to communicate and create with such little effort is always open to us – a circumstance which arguably encourages thoughtless and emotionless expressions along with all of the great things it facilitates – should someone who holds a thought or idea with enough conviction or interest to express it in a way which necessitates time, consideration and concerted effort be looked upon with interest rather than derision? The self-consciousness required to express an idea over time rather than instantaneously makes it likely that the end product has picked up qualities that are not always there in a straightforward expression of the same idea. This is not to say that the object of the artwork itself will have magically “absorbed” in some sense those intricacies of thought, but knowledge of the process definitely offers different possibilities to one’s engagement with the object in question and the things it might express in relation to the viewer.

There are many other things visual art might have going for it, but one thing that seems particularly relevant to current internet-existence is the possibility it offers to engage with things in a way that’s slower, more deliberate, and more demanding of us than the way to which we have become accustomed.