(Actually) Looking at Art

It only took a quarter of an hour for them to start questioning everything. They declared that their heads had started to hurt, brows were visibly furrowed – they scraped their fingers on their scalps looking for answers. No longer was anything certain.

It took precisely the same amount of time for me to know that we had embarked on a highly successful trip to the gallery.

Art is contentious. It’s hard to say quite what it is. Most people know what they like and most are quick to pass judgement on what they instinctively deem as trash. And what is most often deemed as trash? Modern art.

Relationships have been known to falter as the brave ignoramus of the pair stands in something modernist – something that isn’t just a pretty picture of a landscape or some vaguely attractive people – and boldly declares: I could paint that at home.

Luckily, the young couple with me at the gallery would face no such fate – I was there to steer them in the right direction.

Galleries can be intimidating. All those white walls and couples in their sixties with greying hair looking ponderously at seemingly unintelligible messes of paint and colour. They nod and mutter to themselves about the ‘clarity of vision’ and move to the next picture, which you are certain is trying to say something but you have no idea what.

And this is why the young couple asked me to take them around the National Gallery. ‘Because you’re not interested in all that usual art bullshit.’

So they followed me tentatively, three steps behind, as I darted about, painting to painting, making utterly outrageous statements about their merit, worth, meaning and value.

Soon enough – after an entree of Hockney, Rothko, Warhol, Krasner, Kandinsky, Duchamp and Dali – we came face to face with the main event: Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles.

‘But what is it a painting of?’ I was asked.

‘What isn’t it a painting of?’ I declared in a voice noticeably too loud for a gallery, where an artificial hush belies the passion hanging on the walls.

‘It’s life, and feeling, and raw emotion, and colour, and uncertainty, a dash of randomness – maybe of hope and optimism and despair too. Just don’t think about how much it’s worth – that’s when it dies as art.’

It’s easy to forget, looking at a preserved canvas hanging in a gallery, that a life shaped it; no paint goes near canvas without emotion and no emotion happens without people. Why make art if you feel totally content in life?

Which is why, if you leave an art gallery feeling totally content with life, you haven’t actually opened your eyes.

The mistake too often made by people stepping into a gallery for the first time of their own choosing, without any obligation from school or family, is they head in expecting answers, some grand meaning.

They look for the key that’s going to unlock the artist’s intention and they forget to feel anything.

We are taught to judge art before we get the chance to look at it. Some things are masterpieces, other things are rash, there’s some stuff in the middle, and then there are so-called ‘great works’ we just don’t get.

It is perfectly OK if you see something renowned – the Mona Lisa, say – and it does absolutely nothing for you. Don’t be tricked into appreciating it because you are told it is a ‘masterpiece’. An enigmatic smile on a mysterious woman who happens to be rendered in paint with lifelike brilliance from yonks ago doesn’t do it for you? Good, that’s a sign you’re actually looking for yourself.

So, go to the gallery, ignore the usual gallery-going crowd and open your eyes. See what you feel and question everything. There is no hidden meaning that you’re missing.

As we staggered back out into the warm afternoon, my gallery-going companions for the day were still nursing their very sore heads.

One said, ‘I don’t think I know what art is anymore.’

Excellent, I thought. It meant that had actually looked at some art for a change.