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[personal profile] liv
[personal profile] angelofthenorth asked me about Art – what do you respond to?

I'm still enjoying people's December posts, particularly seeing different friends' takes on the same question. So I was really interested to see that [personal profile] angelofthenorth also asked [personal profile] cjwatson about art. The thing is, I might easily have found myself writing a similar post, as my education in art has been extremely limited and I could well have ended up feeling like I don't know how to appreciate it.

My parents did take me to art galleries sometimes; I considered picking the Fitzwilliam for my favourite museum because I've been visiting regularly throughout my life. But somehow it wasn't easy for them to communicate their adult understanding of art to children, so I generally thought of art galleries as boring. I'm not sure I would have done better if I'd attended activities aimed at children; I often found those annoying in other areas, because the silly games to get the children's attention would get in the way of actually learning the thing we were supposed to be learning about.

I also never really learned anything usable about art at school; most of our lessons consisted of learning to make art, not learning to appreciate art. And of course there was the whole fixed trait thing going on, I considered myself to be "bad at" art from a pretty young age, and nobody really explained to me that it was possible to improve your technique by practising, let alone how one would go about doing so. This was reinforced because I wanted to take GCSE art, and was told I was too untalented and I should just do extra academic subjects instead of the usual minimum of at least one subject considered 'creative'. I mean, I really enjoyed doing Greek as well as Latin, but I think it would have been good for me to take one subject I struggled with alongside ten where I was getting perfect marks anyway. I suspect what I really wanted was to take a course in art history, but that wasn't an option.

The reason this isn't a post about my inability to respond to art after all is because of the person I was best friends with as a teenager, Maria. She changed my life in lots of ways but one of them was that she single-handedly taught me to understand visual art. She took me to galleries and made them not boring, because she didn't talk to me about artistic schools and techniques and symbolism, she talked about imagining ourselves into paintings, studying the faces in portraits and thinking about what sort of person might be depicted, looking at landscapes and crowd scenes and discussing every detail. But as if the painting was in some sense real, a way of telling a story, not just an artefact or a representation. Essentially she taught me to 'read' paintings and to a lesser extent sculptures, and there was architecture and dance and music (she was a semi-professional violinist, and a fairly serious classical Spanish dancer too) as well but I had other routes into those forms of art.

And then I went to visit her home in Madrid. To start with her bedroom was decorated not with posters of pop stars but her own 1:1 scale copies, in oils, of various paintings by Picasso, and you could tell they were copies but only by looking really closely. And then she took me to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, where basically you start on the top floor with 13th century mostly religious iconography and work your way down through a fairly comprehensive history of European and European influenced painting through to Dalí on the ground floor. It's small enough that you can have a pretty thorough tour in an an afternoon, and focused on only the most highly regarded example of each style and era that the Baron could get his monied and well-connected hands on.

And, well, I went through it with my best friend, unanima mea soror, talking non-stop as only teenaged soul-mates can. It wasn't supposed to be educational, nobody disapproved of me for trying to interpret visual art as stories or having personal preferences about what I liked or didn't. We mostly didn't even read the captions, Maria explained the context where necessary, but for the most part we just looked at stuff. And just seeing everything properly in its context like that, actually seeing the watershed between Europeans not knowing how to do perspective and having the trick of it, the techniques the artistic community gradually built up for representing light and fabric, the development of the particular style that came to be regarded as realism in portraiture, the move to naturalistic landscapes as advances in paint chemistry began to make it possible to paint from life was far more educational than learning about this stuff in the abstract.

And we didn't, as so many art surveys do, stop with the Impressionists, we just carried right on into the 20th century. We didn't feel obliged to like pretentious or deliberately un-aesthetic stuff, and we weren't tempted to just dismiss something if the technical skill in its creation was less apparent. Rather Maria could see and explain what modern artists were doing in terms of rejecting and playing with the rules of how to represent the world using paint on flat surfaces, because we'd just walked through the history of how those conventions and values developed. In particular she taught me the knack of looking at Cubist works and see them as not as childish or deliberately bad, but as a different way of presenting visual information to the brain. And then after that we went to all the other art museums, the Prado of course, and the very good Modern art museums in Madrid, and various places back in the UK, tiny specialist museums or huge famous ones, churches that just happened to have an altarpiece by some great artist or stately homes boasting that one famous picture from the family's collection in amongst all the mediocre ancestral portraits.

So what do I respond to in art? Stuff that tells a story, and just as with books I know enough to know that there are many many different ways of telling stories. I don't particularly prefer realism over art that uses other conventions, but I can certainly appreciate really impressive technique in the service of realism. And yeah, my personal view of Western art is more biased towards Spanish stuff, Velázquez, El Greco, Goya, Picasso, than the usual story where the artistic centre of Europe was Italy, then the Netherlands, then France, but I have a fair appreciation of art from those countries too. (In a lot of ways you need all of Western art history, and a bit of more global stuff doesn't hurt either, to really appreciate Picasso, so being friends with someone who was that obsessed with him specifically was an advantage in my art education.)

I have after all turned into the sort of grown-up I swore I would not become, as a petulant bored kid being dragged round art galleries, someone who hangs out in galleries and art exhibitions for fun, someone who seeks out the major art museum as a must-see destination in a new city. My academic knowledge is still patchy, but not nearly as non-existent as it might easily have been. Unlike with music I have never really tried to produce art, so I don't have the level of appreciation that a creator, even a not very talented hobby creator, has for works of art. And by inclination I'm hella talky; I am capable of shutting up and letting my companion appreciate the art in their own way (I'm also capable of not dragging my friends to galleries if they're not into visual art!), but really what I want to do is chat chat chat, not about the things that proper connoisseurs talk about, but just about how the art makes me, and you, feel.

[December Days masterpost]
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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