How should I understand Art?

There you are dutifully visiting the local art gallery, staring up at a slightly gloomy portrait from the 17th century and, while you’re partially satisfied that you’ve ticked the cultural box for the day, you’re left wondering if there is something that you are missing. What am I meant to feel? What is this meant to mean? Why does society consider art to be so valuable?

A childhood spent at National Trust properties meant that art has always been around me but for something that is so ubiquitous with a special place in society I struggled to correspond this lofty impression with what I perceived to be a lack of relevance particularly compared with emerging mediums in expressing ideas around life. A trip to the gallery was often accompanied with feelings of mild confusion and blankness; passing comments on particular historical importance or on the prevalent technical themes were not enough to elevate art to the platform that society had given it.

Two things changed this and helped me to understand art in a way that a powerful book or film can elevate our emotions, shift our perspectives and deepen our empathy. Firstly, Alain de Botton’s ‘Art as Therapy’ was instrumental in shaping a positive framework for Art’s role in the world. It’s role being a universal one that can help each of us navigate our understanding of the world. De Botton argues there are 7 key psychological functions of art:

  • Remembering
  • Hope
  • Sorrow
  • Rebalancing
  • Self-Understanding
  • Growth
  • Appreciation

Covered in more depth here: Brain Pickings: Art as Therapy.

Secondly, during my time living in Rome, I came across Chiostro del Bramante that was known to hold regular exhibitions throughout the year. A spectacular venue, it was a short work from my apartment nestled in the alleyways between Piazza Navona and Bar Del Fico. I saw two collections there: Escher and Chagall. For each they created a progressive journey of discovery for the artist and their work. The exhibition space is a series of rooms and passageways that guides you through a designated path of discovery of both the artist and the work. For Escher it brilliantly showed his work chronologically from his literal sketches from his travels in Italy to an ever developed interest in geometry, surrealism and finally abstraction. His remembrance and appreciation of his early travels in Italy was a continual factor in his work. He was asking questions of what is perception, does his impressions of the world truly reflect reality. He lived in Italy alongside the rise of fascism and with his work he was able to beautifully combine ideas of order and structure with those of chaos and futility. His work showed attempts to understand the reality of the world around him and further his place within this world.

Escher — Drawing Hands

Chagall, an early modernist, had an incredible, unique vision of how to bring his thoughts and emotions to manifest into his work. In one of the key rooms, the exhibition took a series of his sketches and brought them to life with music and visual projection. During this time I was studying History of Art at La Sapienza and appreciating Chagall’s synthesis between fauvism, cubism and into surrealism formed a part but not the full depth of my experience. Mindful of Botton’s functions, elements of hope, sorrow, remembrance were present throughout. The exhibition was fantastic in bringing out these elements, encouraging the viewer to participate, to empathise with Chagall’s pain and hope in his work and reflect on how this adapts our own perspective.

Chagall from the exhibition in Rome 2015

If you go to a gallery and come away with just one thing that has encouraged you to ponder and reflect on the way home then it has been a valuable experience. We need to simultaneously reduce the priggish perception of art in our society and broaden the perceived role that art can play for each of us. We should be encouraged to be more confident in our understanding of our emotions and democratise something that in the UK we are fortunate to have so publically available.