When art galleries acquire highly valuable pieces with public money, people jump at the chance to sass it on some newspaper comment section. There seems to be a response among a significant fraction of the population that our money should not be wasted on things that don’t pay returns. Yet at the same time, we are a species with sight as our primary sense and take in more visuals than the average Renaissance Italian could’ve imagined in a wet dream—movies, television, graphics on billboards and Internet videos. Single movies make hundreds of millions of dollars and more people viewed a video of a juvenile panda than voted in every major election in the history of most provinces.
Meanwhile, few people could claim to be able to name the artist and title of more than one masterpiece.
This is just how the world is; paintings are locked in galleries in cities and printed in expensive coffee table books, while the Internet and movie theatres invade every corner of our lives. But the biggest issue in modern times is that producers are more comfortable with making art for the sake of commodity rather than culture. Entertainment is an industry of familiarity.
The films of Michael Bay and the Call of Duty series of videogames are as successful as they are because media is manufactured like crack cocaine— cheap ingredients for a quick and potent high.
Walk into any Cineplex movie theatre and the amount of spectacle attached to the media on display is comparable to a casino or a titty bar—all huge pinups and flashing lights promising a great time and a big score.
In the art gallery though, things exist in their own space. Paintings can get in your face and make you stare into them. Sculptures will stand motionless permanently. If you shell out for the audio guide, a nice female voice will give you a history lesson on a Walkman, but other than that you’re all alone with your own perception.
It is also in the moment that a person stands before a piece of art that many people start to feel out of place.
There is a certain spiritual divide that exists in some people’s minds about the age-old highbrow/lowbrow conflict. For some reason, many have come to believe that “Art appreciation” is something you have to study. In the relationship between the viewer and the art, the only thing the art deserves is time. The idea that somehow the most important thing about viewing art is “appreciating it” just sounds stupid. In reality, the process of viewing art should not be something done for fun, it should be done for contemplation.
If you look at The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, for example, you are not going to appreciate what you see. This painting is wretched and disgusting, full of death and dismemberment. There is a ton of shit talking done in the art world about how truly unpleasant this painting is. The power of the art in this case as in many others is that it makes you think about the world and the universe at large, it gives you pause where Bruce Willis’ lines in Die Hard won’t.
Art as a whole represents our time on this planet, so the good and the bad of our existence are put on display in order to ground viewers as well as the artists themselves.
So when you visit one of the great cities of the world, go to where its art is, but contemplate going with a different attitude than you would the local watering hole. Art is the flexed muscle of the human soul and the face of our condition, the kind of stuff that feeds serious thought, not revelry. Let’s be honest, life is very complicated shit, and the contents of the world’s art galleries reflect this better than anything. So when you go, expect to understand both nothing and everything.