overcoming fear and engaging with art

I’ve long struggled with the difficulty we have in approaching ‘modern art.’

I’ve written previously on the complicated nature of beauty and innovation, the ideas on which, for many years, our acceptance of art, or lack thereof, was based.

It goes without saying that most art today is not beautiful insofar as we have historically understood that term. And it is immediately obvious to most who wander into art galleries and museums today that technical ability and innovation is also not always easy to determine.

Art today is based on ideas, so what, as one unfamiliar with an artist’s ideas, are we to make of this new art?

There’s no easy answer as I’m discovering, but a recent Brain Pickings post pointed me to a little book called “Art as Therapy” by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong.

The title immediately conjured images of people in hospital rooms with Monet’s lilypads gracing the walls for me, but the word therapy in this case is I think a little misleading. I would propose a more appropriate characterization. Art as a means to living a better life.

De Botton and Armstrong propose using art as a way to help us communicate our emotions to others or illuminate half-formed thoughts, for example.

In particular, the two discuss art as a method of overcoming our very human fear of the ‘different.’

In de Botton and Armstrong’s therapy, as in I would imagine, most therapy, they expect full engagement. In attempting to overcome their fear the art-goer would undertake three steps.

1. Acknowledge the strangeness we feel encountering art that is new or different and allow ourselves to feel it
2. Get to know the minds of those that created the art (potentially through reading, a study of the culture or writing of the artist, and so on)
3. Look for points of connection with the artist, however tenuous and embrace them

It may sound rather pedestrian and obvious, but at least, for me, reading such an obvious roadmap of how to ‘overcome fear’ through art, made me think, for the first time, that perhaps it’s fear that discourages us from engaging with art and therefore understanding it.

The more I think and the more I read, my rather lengthy attempt to understand our society’s utter lack of interest in and understanding of art, and in this case I mean auditory, visual or performing art, has been rather misled.

In looking for ways to explain away the elitism inherent in fine art, and blame the art world itself, I’ve failed completely to account for our own complicity in the art world’s growing insularity.

A certain contingent of the art world will always believe art (especially that made in the last century) is reserved only for a select few, the sentiment being expressed rather curtly by Arnold Schoenberg in a quote I recently came across, “Art is, from the outset, naturally not for the people.” Despite the snobbish view of some, I don’t think that is the only viewpoint held by currently working artists.

It’s my understanding that some artists actually appreciate the public’s engagement with their art, instead of shunning it, but engagement implies the expense of energy.

Instead of stopping at “I don’t understand,” we would have to move to step two, “get to know the minds of those that created the art,” and that’s where the going gets difficult.

Just as with anything truly worthwhile in life, understanding and appreciating art isn’t easy, but not only can an attempt to do so improve your life (and your conversation skills), it can also help you overcome fear.

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