Art Seems Intimidating…But it Doesn’t Have to Be.

Hello again!

So many times, I hear people saying, “Art is so intimidating, I’ll never get it”.


The Three Billy Goats Gruff, from ArtPrize, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2015.


Case in Point: ArtPrize

I grew up just outside Grand Rapids Michigan, and my parents still live there.  For three weeks every fall, the largest outdoor art festival in the world, ArtPrize, takes over the entire city.  The whole of GR becomes a giant art gallery, with artists from around the country and world showing their works.  Indoor galleries, restaurants, gardens, street corners, churches and various nooks and crannies display art, and the outside is taken over by sculptures, interactive pieces, and performance art.  (Someone always sites art in the Grand River).  The whole city and thousands of tourists head downtown for multiple days of seeing art, meeting artists, debating this piece or that piece.  It’s now so large, its almost physically impossible to see all the entries!


The only year I got to go, 2015, this was the public grand-prize winner: Northwoods Awakening. the far left side is a giant photograph, printed on canvas. As you move more to the right, the photo starts to be quilted with patches and embroidery. At the right edge, it is a giant, multi-textured quilt. Some said quilting is folk art, and not real art, and the public had no idea this wasn’t actual art. It still won, and it was beautifully intricate.

The thing that makes ArtPrize unique is there are two equal prizes in each category: one awarded by a jury of art critics, and one voted on by the public.  Every year, my parents will keep me updated on how things are going and what they’ve seen, who they’ve voted for, the whole city talks art for nearly a month. But inevitably, a day or so after it ends, I’ll get that final call, which often goes something like this: “Well, so-and-so took the public vote, I’m not surprised, it was really interesting/good/pretty/well-done, but the art critics chose this entry, and they didn’t like the public vote winner.  I don’t get it. You have an art degree, what makes this art and that not?”

Because I have been through several juried shows, and been trained in different genres and histories of art as part of my degree, I can sometimes tell them what I see and how the critics may have seen the winning entries. Sometimes…yeah, art degree or no, I don’t get it either.

For most of the 20th century, there’s been this thick veneer of “sophistication” plastered over art to the point that artists and art critics emit this semi-subconcious vibe: “Either you get it, or you don’t, and if you don’t, I can’t help you, you uncouth, uneducated, uncultured hick”.  And if you’re in the “I don’t get it”, camp, you may feel left out, like you can NEVER understand art, let alone share it with your kids, or friends,  or anyone. Sadly, this alienates too many people from even stepping a toe into the amazing world of art.

It makes art really intimidating.

It’s also wrong.

At the most fundamental level, art is really simple: it is just the remaining visual record of and individual and culture frozen at the time and place it was created. Looking through a particular artist’s work tells us about what was important to them, or how they saw life. (Or what they had to create in order to pay their bills)  Looking at cultural art (like Ancient Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Mayan, or Chinese)  tells us about what each culture saw as important and worth preserving.  Some of these reflections are grand, terrifying, tragic, and even, occasionally, hilarious (sometimes unintentionally so). Art is just a visual story.

A carved, inlaid, and assembled three-dimensional image. What does it tell you about the person who made it? What if I revealed it's a self-portrait? What do you see then?

A carved, inlaid, and assembled three-dimensional image. What does it tell you about the person who made it? What if I revealed it’s a self-portrait? What do you see then?  Source: Own photo, from ArtPrize 2015, GR Ford Museum, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

It’s true art has its own techniques and vocabulary, but those are learnable.  With time and deliberate practice, techniques can be conquered, and you can create beautiful works of art yourself.

But even if you chose not to create art, you can love and appreciate the art of the past and present, and share it with your family and friends.

Knowing the stories of the men and women and cultures that created different works helps bring things to life. The in-jokes or secret symbols hidden in works will become visible to you (or perhaps not, there are some works that have experts still confused!).  You might find you can appreciate what an artist was trying to say, even if you don’t like the particular piece of art yourself. You’ll discover new favorites, or see how art links historical or scientific events.  Art is one of the languages that bind us all together as humans. Every culture has some form of visual language.

Why do artists make it complicated?  We’re incredibly insecure, believe it or not. Bluffing that, “If you don’t get it, it means you just don’t understand art” masks our own insecurities. If we make it seem intentionally obscure, people will think we’re deep.  (This isn’t true all the time or for all artists, but making art is incredibly personal.  It’s like putting your naked heart on a platter for people to judge. Telling someone, “if you don’t get it, then I can’t help you” protects us from our own vulnerability and hurt feelings.)   Different things will speak to each of us differently.  Dive in with us, explore this world, and hold your ground if someone tries to tell you that you just will never understand, because you will bring a different lens to art than I will, and we can both learn things, even if we disagree.