“Appreciating” Art

My father is a man who loves history, classical literature, opera, and art. I grew up exposed to the arts and culture at home and in museum trips to New York City.

Unfortunately, I feel that my dad is a bit elitist, in that he thinks that everyone else should like these things too. And I hate most of them.

I felt like a walking contradiction through my late teenage and early adult years. I did not like reading classics in high school and abhorred analyzing texts. I found them to be boring. But I loved reading, just not those books. I loved writing poetry and Young Adult fiction, and aspired to study creative writing in college and become a writer. I loved drawing and painting, but could not feel the sense of wonder as other people got when they stared at a painting in a museum for a few minutes.

Once, my father exclaimed to me over a dinner, “How can you study art if you don’t even appreciate it?!”

I studied studio art in college, and this was said to me while I was still in my undergraduate studies. It hurt me a lot because at least once a semester, often more, my professors would inevitably send me to an art museum to look at some art and write an essay. However, I dreaded it every time. I lived in New York City for 3.5 years and I didn’t go to a single art museum unless I was assigned to, yet I was literally an art student! I’ve lived in shame about this for the past few years and I could not figure out what was missing. Why did I like making art, but not looking at it in an art museum?

It was not for lack of trying, I’ll tell you that. I saw that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had an exhibit on the Met Gala outfits, so I voluntarily decided to go check it out once. I was excited, as it was the first time I had ever voluntarily set foot in the Met- maybe, I’d enjoy it this time! But no, I still hated it just as much. I was bored in minutes and still hate the Metropolitan Museum of Art to this day because I find it to be incredibly dull.

It was not a matter of not knowing a lot of art history. I disliked an introductory art history class I took in college. Although I could talk about the meaning of, I don’t know, light or something like that in a Caravaggio painting for several minutes, I got no joy out of it. In fact, the only art that I enjoyed learning about was Egyptian artworks and some Impressionist paintings. My favorite one is below.

The Slave Ship, originally titled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon, J. M. W. Turner, 1840

I had inklings that I enjoyed both performance art and installation art more than other forms of artwork. I used to visit a collective called Flux Factory in Long Island City, often solely for performance or installation exhibits. But sometimes I did not enjoy installations at the Whitney Museum, so it could not solely be a matter of medium that I was attracted to.

It was not until I saw a Bruce Nauman exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, visited Dia:Beacon, and reflected on which pieces stood out to me from learning about artworks in my classes that I started to learn about what kind of art I enjoy and why I did not like art museums.

Let me explain some pieces I’ve thought a lot about in the past few years:

  • Sophie Calle’s The Address Book: Calle was hired to write 28 articles and for this project, she found an address book, contacted everyone in the book to tell her about the owner, and wrote about it.
  • Sol LeWitt’s paintings in general: Many of LeWitt’s works are actually a series of instructions that anyone could replicate. Any artwork created from the instructions is a Sol LeWitt painting because he is the person who generated the idea for the artwork.
  • Yoko Ono’s Cut: People were invited to approach Yoko Ono, who was sitting on the ground, and cut off a piece of her clothing with a pair of scissors. Several times, people threatened to hurt her.
  • Any of Bruce Nauman’s installations focused on cameras and surveillance
  • Charging Bull by Arturo Di Modica, the famous bronze sculpture in Bowling Green: This piece was illegally placed in front of the New York Stock Exchange, which caused a huge uproar, as people reacted to it.

To me, these pieces evoked so much complex thought in me. Many times, they were experiences to be witnessed in person or as they were happening. Very “you just had to be there!” vibes. And those are the kinds of pieces that intrigue me, that fascinate me, that are memorable to me. Oftentimes, a painting just does not create the same wonder for me, as it apparently does for others.

I learned recently that there is a term called “conceptual art,” and I think that along with contemporary art in general, the kind of artwork I love best is conceptual art! It is the art that makes me feel. I finally know what “appreciating” artwork looks like!

So why do I find art museums boring? Because so many museums don’t feature as much conceptual art. Perhaps I have been going to the wrong places, though. Maybe I will find some new haunts, wherever I go next, even if it is not as “beautiful” as the Met.

Also, I mourn for the conceptual artwork that I missed experiencing because I did not know the context behind them as a young child, such as Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present, which I actually saw briefly as a child at the MoMA, but didn’t approach because I knew nothing about it! I’m fairly sure that I ate candy from a Felix Gonzalez-Torres piece once. But there’s so much art out there to be enjoyed. I hope I keep finding them.

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