The Art of Appreciation, London

3 12 2004

Today I was in London on business and in the evening I had the chance to spend a few late hours at the Tate Britain at Millbank. This is different from Tate Modern which is downstream by the Thames. I’ll have to visit this gallery again since only some of the rooms were open. Much of what was accessible today were paintings of the last century. Some of the paintings and drawings by Gwen John and Augustus John are worth a study. The portraits by Gwen John are most poignant due to a simple approach that blends abstraction and impressionism. The minimal use of strong colours adds to the success. In contrast, I was particularly impressed by the bold works of John Piper who has managed to capture vividly the character of crumbling buildings in the aftermath of the Second World War. They are colourful and charming despite the subject matter.

London City Hall

Modern architecture: London City Hall

A number of other works were too modern (that is, too abstract) that only descriptive words from the artist point the way towards an understanding. Still one does not feel any sense of awe or beauty in their creations. A piece that doesn’t speak for itself will never be a masterpiece. These days I rarely read the texts that accompany exhibits. I read them only if the work is able to get my attention in the first place. Even here, sometimes my own interpretation appeals better than the artist’s intent. After all, art is a personal experience. If it is personal for the artist, it is just as personal for the viewer. On other occasions, I am glad to have read the notes. These have enabled me to learn and develop the art of appreciating art.

In any event, appreciation must result in an open interpretation and should never be constrained by the artist’s intent. Thus the job of a modern artist becomes more difficult for he or she has to create a style of abstraction that does not become too abstract for meaning. The problem appears to be one of conscious effort on the part of an artist to convey specific messages in abstract terms. The artist should rather focus on form, style and medium to create a thing of beauty. As Keats confirms, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”. What about things of ugliness and repulsion? Do we not have enough of them in our lives? Do we need any more of them in the way of art and artistic expression? The answer is yes. Otherwise our understanding of life and reality will remain incomplete and inadequate.

St Paul's Cathedral from the Millennium Bridge

St Paul's Cathedral from the Millennium Bridge

If an artist is not able to evolve to such an abstraction, then the artist should move towards traditional or conventional forms. The situation is made worse by critics who profess to know much and misguide people into their ways of thinking. The Guardian has a thick supplement almost everyday full of art criticism. I have become weary of reading them. Such criticism is good because it comes from experts whose opinions matter. However, their opinions are only opinions. They are not enduring truths that speak for all ages. They are no more than comments to suit the tastes of an age. They are fortifications that perpetuate the survival of their own viewpoints. One must never be afraid to break free. The question before each of us is this: what do you think or feel about a particular exhibit at a museum?

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