Going to gallery openings and walking through museums (of the ones that aren’t still closed) in Cairo has become somewhat tiring. I can go through a million reasons as to why exactly, but in this post I’ll just pick on one: The inadequacy of contemplation. People skim through the art work like it’s a work email. They just “get the gist of it”. They look, but they don’t see what they’re looking at. They read the labels. They read the number and then check the price tag- not to buy, but to see of they think it’s worth it. It’s all terribly depressing.
Not that I’m advocating sitting in front of a painting for an hour of existentialist pondering, but give it a damn minute. Look at it. If you like it, look at it some more. Allow it to seep in and change you, if only for a moment. Looking at Art should be a dialogue: if it’s a painting you find boring it’ll be small talk, like that girl you always see at a party but can never remember her name. If you like it, but don’t understand it, it’ll be that professor you have an impossible crush on who you know you’ll need to read more in order to impress. If you just get it, if it speaks to you in tongues only you can comprehend, it’ll be your lover, your calling, your secret.
I recently attended a talk by the brilliant Art critic Blake Gopnik titled “Golden Secrets of the Impressionist Pharaohs: Art in the Age of Mass Exhibitions” in Berlin (details of why & where exactly will be posted soon) and in it, he addressed this point exactly. He showed us the following clip, from the movie “Play it again, Sam” (1972) by Woody Allen:
Blake then had the following to say: “Museums used to be about contemplation, about a replacement for the celebrity culture, the spectacle, for speed, for the ease of TV. How many people have the time with a work of art to contemplate the ultimate negativity of the universe? That notion of long, hard contemplation, of feeling new thoughts about a picture? In the background of this clip you can see people contemplating works of art at their own pace and path, not being led. I think the main problem is that we, collectively, forgot the fact that art should be difficult, that art will make you think about the ultimate negativity of the universe. I’m not saying that art should always lead you to suicide but I think it should at least give you a possibility, to give you some discomfort. And this is what I think we lost. ”
Perhaps it’s the way the stereotype around Art, particularly contemporary Art, is set up. People try and outsmart it, find a way to call out the artist as a fraud or full of shit. On the other hand, a lot of people idolise whatever brushstroke happens to hit whatever surface, since that’s what considered “cool” (much like how one would wear a vomit coloured snakeskin bag, just because it happens to be a Lanvin). Blake Gopnik nailed it in his talk once more: “A lot of people tend to be intimidated by contemporary Art, and find it a challenge to understand or look at. What we must not forget is that all Art was contemporary at one point- it just needs time.”
So the next time you go to a gallery or a museum, give the works a better chance, and allow yourself more time for contemplation- you might be surprised at what you may find.