I don’t know much about art, but…

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If you’ve ever started a sentence with “I don’t know much about art, but…”, then this post is for you. Or, if you’ve NEVER started a sentence that way, this post is especially for you.

How do you judge art, music, theatre, poetry, prose, and such? Do you dare have an opinion? Well, hopefully you have an undergrad degree in one or more of the topics (preferably a post-graduate degree), attend concerts/viewings/readings/plays once or twice a month, and are certainly chums with a handful of eccentric professors in each field. Right? Nope.

Not many of my closest friends or family are established artists, writers, musicians or what have you. But it never fails that as our conversations meander, we end up touching upon my artwork (you know, because I shamelessly drop hints inside every word I speak) and the fact that I’ve been working on this or that. While it is awesome to be acknowledged as an artist, there always comes that crux of the discussion where my friends will inadvertently sabotage their own opinion of what I do, or just artistic endeavors in general.

They either preface their feedback with “I don’t know much about art, but…” or they finish it with “…and I’m no expert here and don’t really know what’s good or what’s not good art.” On the count of three, let us all recite the word “BULLSHIT.” One, two, three: BULLSHIT!

Ok, so maybe you can’t identify the specific brushstroke technique used to create that effect right there. Perhaps you don’t know the names on the paint tubes of the three different blue hues used to build that river. You can’t recall if that style is Impressionism, or Renaissance, or Surrealism. You mix up Da Vinci with Michelangelo. You feel unable to accurately verbalize what you feel, see, think, emote about that particular painting. MAYBE YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW WHY YOU LIKE IT. Ah, but here is my counterargument to all that: You know what you like.

You know what you like. Doesn’t matter why. You know what you don’t like, too. Doesn’t matter why. Just because you haven’t been formally trained with the vocabulary to psycho-analyze the uptick of a brushstroke, that doesn’t mean you are any less qualified to rip a piece of art to shreds (figuratively speaking here) or praise the ever-living shit out of it (again, figuratively). You know what speaks to you, what excites you, what intrigues you.

You can feel the reaction first, and that initial response is pure. No need to attach descriptors to it. Let it be what it is. “Words are very, unnecessary. They can only do haaaaaaaarmmm.” (Depeche Mode). Don’t allow some pretentious, presumptuous, petty person put a damper on your antenna. Who cares why you like something? Who says you have to stand up on stage and demonstratively defend your stance on the matter? Nobody. Your artistic antenna is right as rain, and you have to defend its receptors against your own self doubts. Now, having said all that…here are some foods for thought.

Can a studied knowledge of art deepen and amplify your relationship with a painting? Can a studied knowledge of music deepen and amplify your relationship with a song? The words here are interchangeable, but the question stands: can it?

Hell yes it can. The more you know about any subject (or sport, for that matter), the more you’re going to extract from your interaction with it. Here’s kind of a weird example to prove this point. Led Zeppelin has a track called “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” Amazingly bluesy and punchy and slick and heavy and powerful and soulful and all those kick-ass words you hope somebody says about you one day. It’s just a great, great tune. I’d heard that song 50 times before someone told me one thing that would forever deepen my connection with that song. Would you believe I remember exactly where I was when they told me and I first heard “it”?

John Bonham performing live onstage, playing Ludwig Vistalite see-through acrylic drum kit, drums (perspex), wearing haedband

Yeah, it was one of those experiences, and here it is: the damn bass drum pedal squeaks throughout the entire song. It’s not even subtle, really, but I’d never heard it before. Think it was my brother, his best friend, or my best friend who told me this while sitting in a car in Boulder, Colorado, about to turn into a gas station on the left. May have been on Arapaho Boulevard, maybe it was Folsom Street. But they told me about the squeak, and so we of course restarted the song and listened to it all the way through again. There it was. The whole damn time.

So, this knowledge somehow placed a timeless, spiritual part of me right there inside the bedroom of that house where John Bonham was playing those drums and stomping that bass pedal. Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. Took the song to a whole other level.

Now, was it necessary for me to know about that squeaky pedal to love the song? Not at all. But it certainly allowed me a deeper connection with it. Already knew I loved it, didn’t care why, didn’t matter why, either. I’m no musician, but knew it was good on several levels. And that’s easily detected through that artistic antenna that we are all born with. Purity recognizes purity, and that is a complete and perfect circle.

You know what you like, and it doesn’t matter why. If someone tries to infer that their opinion is more valid than yours, then “that person is a jackhole who needs to grow some security in their instincts instead of trying to mask them with a façade of fancy words” (you tell ’em I said so – word for word – and then point them to this article so that maybe they’ll buy something from me and we all win!). Yes, I do believe, from experience, that the more I know about an artist’s life, influences, beliefs, techniques, and so on, the more I connect with what they are doing…but that doesn’t mean I LIKE what they are doing. Just means I appreciate what they went through to achieve said results.

Hopefully we can all discuss art a little more freely, and perhaps identify some common approaches to how we speak about it. Establish some common ways to describe a reaction to the piece, or how to define an emotional connection or distance, or to just understand that we are all equally qualified to  express our opinions on art.

Cheers, Rik

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