If you were to ask visitors at your local art museum why they are there, I suspect most would say to appreciate the beauty in works created by artists through the ages. A worthy answer and one that has been with us for centuries. It points to experiencing art for no other reason than to be inspired by feelings of beauty or awe. We have come to identify this notion of an “aesthetic” experience as art for art’s sake, and I am not ashamed to say that I enjoy going to an art museum for that experience. Yet if you were to enter a contemporary art gallery with that purpose in mind, you’d likely be disappointed, as there will be little if anything there that will inspire a sense of beauty. That is probably why many shun such places, and if a gallant few were to venture into one, a likely reaction might be, “you call that art?”
No matter when or where an artwork is created (or appreciated), we should keep in mind that art always tells a story. That story may be intended for us to be taken by its beauty, but it may instead force us to elicit other feelings, such as anger, surprise, or disgust. Importantly, the more we know about the historical context of an artwork the better we are able to understand the story. We are well aware of political and religious art, which has the purpose of making us think about the world from a particular perspective and elicit certain feelings. A magnificent example is Picasso’s Guernica, which relates the story of the Spanish Civil War and the horrors that hatred inflicts. Historians often consider artworks as artifacts—not unlike the way an archeologist might consider them—telling stories about a culture’s way of life. Thus, structures in a landscape painting, a table setting in a still life, or clothing in a portrait are meaningful and offer clues as to how people lived in cultures long past.
Recently I came across an interesting work that tells a story of art in the context of the natural sciences. As part of a NSF-sponsored workshop that considered links between the sciences, arts, and humanities, I visited UC Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station, a research facility located 20 miles north of Lake Tahoe, where I was treated with an artwork called Invisible Barn. This fascinating structure is narrow, about a yard wide, but from the side it looks like a house that is covered with mirror-like reflective material. It is not actually “invisible,” but instead even more compelling as it blends wonderfully with its environment. Its creators, Seung Teak Lee and Mi Jung, entered the plan of Invisible Barn to Folly, a New York based art/architectural competition. The design was acknowledged as a notable entry, and later the artists were invited to install the piece at various prominent locales, including New York, Paris, and Rome, yet they chose an obscure research field station in the wilds of the Sierra Nevada, which actually turned out to be a most fitting spot. The first question one might ask is what’s this work of art doing in a science field station? This question actually addresses the point that art is not just for art’s sake. The context of Invisible Barn suggests that science and art can be interlaced and tell a fuller story about our relation with the natural environment than the two traditions alone. Interestingly, the artwork raised a more specific question—will birds inadvertently crash into the structure? Working with the field station managers, Jeff Brown and Faerthen Felix, paneling was installed that reflected frequencies within the visual range of birds, and thus the mixing of science and art is again applied.
If we keep in mind that art always tells a story, it may be less difficult to accept that some artworks will not elicit any emotions at all. Instead, the story may be purely conceptual—one that makes you think rather than feel. Much contemporary art is idea-oriented and often meant to address a rather specific point—which is to add a new chapter in the story of the art process itself. Thus, it is often useful at a contemporary art gallery to think about how an artwork changes your concept about art. Rather than asking, “Is that art?” the real question is “How is that art different from what has been viewed as art before?” Thus, it is essential to have knowledge about art history in order to appreciate much of what is called post-modern art, though of course, art history knowledge will enrich any art experience.
These days whenever I experience art, I carry a conceptual toolbox that lets me handle a variety of works that previously I would have passed by as uninteresting. I may be inspired by an artwork’s beauty or how it elicits other emotions. I may think about how an artist drives my visual processes and attention through creative application of lines, shapes, and colors. I may consider a work in the context of the cultural, political, and personal history of the artist (with this perspective, I try to read all of the information displayed on the gallery walls or on the little notecard next to a work). I may take a purely conceptual viewpoint and consider how an artwork expresses an idea or concept, which may be directed specifically to the history of art itself. The important point is to view a visit to an art museum more like a visit to a science museum—which is to enjoy a learning experience and be informed about the world in new and different ways.