At the library the other day, I skimmed over a copy of a book called A Short Guide to Writing About Art, thinking it might provide some guidance for a few projects I’m working on. Right away, I realized it was targeted at people far more knowledgeable about artistic technique and analysis than I, which got me thinking.
This text was meant to help art history students deconstruct and make sense of a variety of masterpieces in a variety of media. It gives quite a bit of advice on which aspects of a painting or sculpture to observe, and which techniques would distinguish that particular work from related ones. I realized that a lot of those aspects are things I wouldn’t consciously be paying attention to, or even noticing at all, like whether a statue carries the same emotional power when looked at in profile as opposed to head-on.
Later, I was talking with a pianist friend of mine whose knowledge of standard compositional techniques allows him to translate half an hour of solo piano into a multi-dimensional story, resplendent with imagery and painstaking details. I listened to the same piece along with him and enjoyed it because it was pleasant and pretty, but I got nowhere near the same amount of information from it. A few months ago, he properly introduced me to Shostakovich, whose War Symphonies I would’ve enjoyed much more than most classical music anyway, but whom I adore in large part because of his political and historical resonance.
These observations have begun to shed light upon a barely-visible fissure emerging between the ways in which people appreciate art. Most people don’t come from backgrounds that equip them for in-depth analysis and understanding of art, so their opinions are formed more directly from their experience of the piece. Their perceptions are straightforward because they’re reacting to what the art is.
People who’ve studied the techniques and history of various art forms understand what each of the artist’s choices means in context of the genre and the time period in which it was created, so they’re receiving a much different, arguably richer picture of the work. Here, they’re reacting to what the art represents.
On occasion, I listen to a full album straight through with little to no background knowledge of the artist, and this practice amplifies the music’s appeal tenfold because I know my reaction to it is unadulterated by expectation or prior emotional associations. This is how I discovered my love for Pablo Honey by Radiohead and Definitely Maybe by Oasis, two records I probably wouldn’t have given a second thought to based purely on insight into their artistic or historical significance.
This gut response coexists with the one that admires Shostakovich for the secret satire hidden in each note.
So it isn’t a perfect chasm. There are lots of overlaps where the split barely even exists, and I like to think that the vast majority of people, whether they know it or not, are very much capable of taking in and interpreting art from either edge.