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Wednesday, February 5, 2020

What DO People Like?

Having proposed that people (especially, perhaps, photographers) don't much like photographs I am now boxed into a corner. Manifestly people do go look at photographs in particular and Art in general. So I thought about that.

I suppose there are endless reasons, really, that a person might go and look at some Art, but here are four things I think might be at least representative. They probably blend seamlessly in to one another, if you squint, but I'm going to write them down separately.

First, people are interested in subject matter. Famously, people mostly like pictures of themselves. Perhaps you really like water lilies, or Paris. You derive enjoyment from pictures that depict those things.

Second, people are interested in artists. Perhaps you think Monet was quite the fellow, or you would like to know more about him. So, off you go to look at the Monet show. Some people might think Sally Mann is pretty good and travel across the country to see her pictures. Hypothetically.

Third, there are social reasons. Probably the reason you're interested in Monet, and own some Monet prints, is that you've developed the idea that you're the kind of person who likes Monet. And you are correct! Your Monet print over the fireplace identifies you as the kind of person you are, to all who enter your abode! You and your social circle all went to see the Monet, and you can talk about that.

Fourth, and least, you're looking for an Art-like experience. You seek that ineffable sense of growth, of expansion, of somehow understanding something you did not before. You seek to be enriched.

I believe that most of our interactions with Art are driven by the first and the third. We put up photographs of our family, because we love them. Younger people put up posters of fast cars, unicorns, or beautiful people because of a kind of aspirational interest in those subjects. We put up reproductions of Monet, or Cartier-Bresson, as social signaling because we imagine ourselves the kind of person who likes those things, and indeed we are. But, we like those things largely because we are the kind of person who likes them, not because of the intrinsic qualities of the Art we're sticking on the wall.

When we go to the museum to look at some Art, we are going largely because we are the kind of person who goes to the museum to see that kind of Art.

At the same time, we live with a kind of fiction that we love the Art for the sake of Art, for essentially that fourth reason. Photographers of several stripes struggle with composition, with form, presumably because they imagine this will make their work Art-like. We talk around why we like Cartier-Bresson yes, yes, the decisive moment don't you know or Monet the brushwork, don't you know, the brushwork without ever really getting to the point.

We avoid saying stupid things like you know, the thing about the Impressionists is that it doesn't feel like there's anywhere to stand in the picture [*] which would reveal that we've actually looked at the damned thing and formed an idea. I don't know if people mainly don't look at the things, or if they keep their ideas to themselves, but either way something of the Art-like experience we are allegedly seeking is missing, in favor of either silence or mumbling about brushwork.

We pretend, to one degree or another, that our interactions with Art are driven by Art, by the intrinsic qualities of the Art, but in reality we are rather more driven by subject matter and the social connotations that surround the Art. This is, of course, weaponized by the Serious Art Industry, which may be considered to do very little other than build social constructs in which to embed more or less randomly chosen pieces of Art.

Onwards to books.

Books are, more or less obviously, about subject matter and to a lesser extent social signaling. Nobody sticks a bunch of Sartre or Joyce on the shelf because they enjoy reading it, they buy it because they're the kind of person who has an interest in but does not read Sartre and Joyce. We buy books of science fiction, or art history, or the latest Malcolm Gladwell because we're interested in the subject matter.

And so with visual books. I believe QT Luong has sold quite a few books of photographs of the US National Park system, Treasured Lands, and I believe those sales are largely driven by the fact that he has a clear and popular subject. I dare say he's made a lot of extraordinarily beautiful photographs as well. It's a whole package, that begins with something people are interested in.

In addition, of course, this book sitting on your coffee table signals to your guests what kind of person you are. It signals the same to you, providing you with a little taste of virtue every time you see it.

As for the Art-like experience... well, I dare say that's in there too, right? I mean, sublime landscapes and all that. Staggering beauty and I did not know... wow! But that, while absolutely real and a part of the whole package, is the chaser not the shot.

Those of us who aspire to Serious Art, though, might well try to avoid the subject driven work. Why, I am not sure. But whatever the impulse that drove the abstract artists seems to simply arise: no damn it I simply refuse to paint another hot girl, it's all blotches of color from now on, success be damned.

The things I have made that have been best received have had subjects which, in the end, proved interesting to the reader. My most successful project to date seems to have successfully made people feel a genuine interest in the alley that lies behind my house, or at least in the idea of alleys in general.

The trouble with the purely Art-like experience is that it requires work. If you're going to go look at the Monet, or the Mann, and experience that sensation of enlargement, you can't just stand there like an ox and await enlightenment. You've got to think about both the work, and yourself. You have to, as the therapists suggest, "check in" with yourself to find any reaction you might have, and then return to the work to see what's in it, and so on.

Having spent a fair bit of time at this, I have to say that it does not endear you to museum patrons. You're supposed to flow, damn it, flow. It looks for all the world like you are standing there like an ox. An ox who is in the way. An ox who is not flowing. You, of course, are frustrated because people keep flowing between you and whatever it is you're trying to find your response to. Best is very unpopular shows, or if you can contrive to break in after hours, but these solutions have their own problems.

It is easier with books, because nobody's flowing around you and we have an expectation of getting something intellectual or emotional from a book, rather than simply a brief visual impression. Still, the book has its own demands. It wants you to turn the page, but sometimes you have to resist that.

In the end the whole thing is rather exhausting. Spending, let's say, an hour focusing on someone's little body of work is hard work.

I don't think most people can do it. My experience of museums is that almost nobody is taking the time, everyone is flowing. They want to check off the Monet and get on to lunch. Like any critic worthy of the name, they've made up their mind beforehand anyways, so it only remains to quickly whisk through and then on to re-heated quiche and maybe a terrible off-dry white.

While there doesn't seem to be any sort of conclusion here, I suppose one might imagine that some sort of balance is desirable; of subject matter/social signaling, balanced against Art-like experiences, might be rather the thing? Something to draw them in, and then a reward for the attentive? Or perhaps the lesson really is that the only two possibilities are populism and obscurity? Pick one!

[*] My reaction to the Impressionists general is basically that with a Manet or whatever, one feels one could step through the frame and be somewhere, but with the Impressionists one cannot. There is a world over there through the frame, but unlike a Corot, a Millet, a da Vinci, one doesn't feel there's anywhere to stand in a Monet or a C├ęzanne.


  1. I suspect that not everyone has what, for convenience, we could call the "art gene". In fact, very few do (I imagine this is because a tendency to become transfixed by the play of light and shadow on a sunlit patch of savannah made one easy prey for leopards). The "gene" has two variants: active (art makers) and passive (art appreciators).

    To possess either is to belong, potentially, to a small group which happens to find favour with society's elites. However, as you say, to get actual results from either the active or the passive variant requires hard work, although it is a damn sight easier to fake the passive variety. But anyone who has (a) never been stopped in their tracks for 10 minutes by *something* in a major gallery, or (b) only likes pictures of trains should probably concede that the art gene has passed them by. The thing is, there is absolutely no shame in this: not "getting" art is no more humiliating than not "getting" bee-keeping or marathon-running. If only more well-intentioned folk would concede this, and stop looking for what is never going to be there for them, then attending "blockbuster" exhibitions wouldn't be such a pain in the arse...


    1. I think one could argue, but probably not usefully, about whether these things are "genes" or whether they can be taught. Otherwise, I concur!

    2. Actually, it occurs to me that the more people there are who are faking an appreciation of art (for whatever complex social reasons) and who get into positions of influence, then the door for fake art production (i.e. art it's easy to fake an appreciation of) opens ever wider... Which explains a lot (including "conceptual" art). It's the Emperor's New Portrait.

      I don't like sounding like an elitist, but that never seems to trouble sports fans...


  2. Dude. it would not be a proper afternoon at the museum without re-heated quiche and a terrible off-dry white. [stone seal]

    1. I *do* love the quiche and the off-dry white! The social aspects, I confess, also delight me.

  3. America as a whole is a relatively art-averse and visually unsophisticated culture. Other nations do this better for whatever reason; it's culturally ingrained, they get taught starting at an early age, whatever. I'm thinking of places like Japan, Switzerland, Scandinavian countries, and Mexico. So your experience is thankfully far from universal. Also, you are coming at this from quite a different angle (mathematician I think?). This is both a strength (you see things differently), and a weakness (there's a whole lot you just don't 'grep').

    1. I have to say that my instinctive response to "look, you just don't get it" is to reply, with a degree on rancor that depends on many factors, "try me."

  4. Me, I just like to look at art if it is something that appeals to me, that I think would look good on my walls because I like to look at it.
    Places I have seen and people I like to look at.
    Abstracts that appeal to me because of colour, shape and form.
    Thus, I have a very varied and different collection, from Mike Chisholm photographs to Native Canadian artists (the original Canadian people)to David Hockney, etc.
    Prints as well as originals; I'm not made of money.
    I go to art museums to see primarily photography exhibitions, but stay for the rest, if it interests me.
    I go early in the day to avoid the 'Flow'.
    Such people piss me off.
    I sit for long periods at a time and look at pictures on the wall.
    Maybe I'll have a coffee and a bun to finish the visit.
    Maybe a poor white wine, though that depends on whether I'm driving or not.
    I avoid places such as the MOMA in San Francisco simply because they have the "Greatest Hits" of artists that "Must Be Seen Before I Die".
    Prefer the De Young, but even that's limited.
    My 'Art' is groups 1 and 2.
    I despise 3 and 4.
    I like what I like and not what I'm supposed to like; thus I like Ansel Adams but detest Anselm Kiefer.
    Burn me at the stake if you will, but honesty in art appreciation is missing in the current environment, especially if it gives one the chance to express a 'View'.
    My children did far better work in kindergarten than a lot of the current 'Artists', but that's just my opinion.
    I grew up visiting museums and art galleries in the UK, it's something we did.
    Likewise Central Europe.
    Some good stuff in the US, but not the establishment galleries.
    Agree with the comments about reheated quiche and dry white wine.

  5. My experience is that the vast majority of people just don't give a shit about art at all. It never even enters their consciousness.

    Sure, they love music, movies, books, comics, and pictures of their family or beautiful things. They consume media. But because it's something to do, not because they are noticing, paying attention to, or studying the artistry that went into the creation of the media. And certainly not because it makes them feel something or think something that is outside of their experience. They want their media to confirm and reaffirm what they already think and feel. Which is the opposite of art.

  6. Last spring I had a chance to go to Paris and Amsterdam and of course I visited the museums. It was interesting to see all the people walk up, snap a photo on their phone and then move on. Their total interaction was no more than 5 seconds.
    The Van Gogh museum prohibited photos and the dynamic was a lot better, at least for me.