Art Appreciation: is it a lost art?

As an artist in the digital age I find myself with problems I did not face 25 years ago. The biggest, I am beginning to think, is that Art has become under valued by an overabundance of access to imagery, and a lack of knowledge in how to look at it.

I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.

This tired cliche is a detriment to what we know and like. I attend the Art Museum frequently and the more I learn about art, the more I like. We know an image by Georgia O’Keefe is considered art even if we don’t like it. How do we know this? Because Georgia O’Keefe is a famous artist, and we can see her work hanging in a well respected Art Museum. How else can we know? Without the right vocabulary and understanding of the elements and principles of design we are not equipped with an understanding of how to judge what we see. Even with this knowledge it is so interesting to learn what motivated artists to new ways of seeing as O’Keefe did with her flowers.

We may be able to say we like it because it has nice colors and feels soft, and we love roses, but what makes it good Art? There is no shame in not knowing these things. The system does not support the teaching in many places, but wouldn’t it be nice if it did.

I have been wondering how much this lack of understanding of art, coupled with such an abundance of available art, is hurting my sales?

If it is, how much responsibility do I have to educate my audience? According to Art Biz Coach Alyson B. Stanfield, artist as aducator is a critical piece of the job. She says:

Part of your job in promoting your art is to give viewers a pathway to your work — to show them how to look at and appreciate it.

If you want to reach the widest possible audience, it’s critical that you accept your role as primary educator for your art.

Most artists think of educating about the media, but I’d like for you to teach people how to look.

Showing people how to view your art empowers them. It gives them skills they’ll use forever.

This is good news in my book. I love to talk about what makes art appealing and meaningful.  Most of my art has a story beyond the image as well and these are things people seem to like knowing. Since we internet artists blog anyhow we may as well put our knowledge to work for the good of the customer and our business.

Does this apply to craft and DIY sites as well? Absolutely. The more people know about a service or product the more likely they are to want it. Of course there are the cases of instant love, must have it now, but even there it can further enhance the work if you let the customer understand more. Additionally, with so much art to compete with (on Etsy for instance) it is critical to stand out in some way. Why not let your big brain help you and spill the goods!

Pink Rose - Gwyn Michael

I do happen to like Georgia O’Keeffe’s work and it no doubt influenced this piece I did last winter. The rose was part of the arrangements at My Aunt Nancy’s 80th birthday. I was taken with the delicate color and went in close with my camera to crop the surroundings out and feature only the rose. This creates a more design-like image focusing on line, color, and form rather than space as in the whole bouquet. As a painter I look beyond what is captured with the camera and strive to bring out the cool tones reflected in the shadows and enhance the texture to create a more painterly quality. I chose to let a bit of the roses behind this one stay in the composition while being sure it remained balanced.

While flower art is not normally my thing, I believe I succeeded in creating a good piece here.

Is it art? Why, or why not? You tell me, and while you’re at it tell me how you educate your customers if you do.

11 thoughts on “Art Appreciation: is it a lost art?

  1. Gwyn, what a wonderful article! I couldn’t agree more. I often discuss this topic with my boyfriend. He believes art shouldn’t be over-explained so that the viewer can project their own meaning onto the piece. I think that people who want to do this are going to do it anyway. Most people. they will either intuitively like or dislike a piece. If they like it, I find it’s helpful to give them the language to help articulate why they like it. It might make them more inclined to purchase a piece or more comfortable telling their friends about this great new artist they came across.

    When I started out, people had a hard time putting my work into context. That was one of my biggest surprises when I started asking for feedback. (I completely understood where I was coming from. How could other people not see it the same way that I did?) While I still have work to do, I believe I’ve come along way in helping them understand my inspiration and how that makes my pieces different (and hopefully special.)

    1. Thanks Dana! I checked your website and am curious how this applies to your design work? Or, are you talking about other work? Love your patterns BTW. It is something I love to look at but am not good at creating :-)

  2. This is very thought provoking to me, as both an artist and an arts appreciator. And so I have written too long a response! LOL

    I don’t actually remember learning the rules of composition/ art history because it has been part of my life ever since I was a very little girl (my mom is a painter and we went to museums regularly as well as looking at art books and having lots of art in our house). Obviously, I think learning about composition and style (and art history) is important, but I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to go about educating someone who didn’t have the same life experience I have had. I can educate about my own art and the lineage I fall into, but teaching general art appreciation/ art history isn’t my scope right now.

    And, I do really truly believe that probably the most important aspect of art appreciation is knowing what you like. Going to a museum and spending hours looking at paintings I don’t like is awful, in my opinion. For example, when we went to the Prada (in Madrid) — despite there being some art that resonated with me, overall it was torturous. It is a very important museum, with an amazing historical perspective, but it is not at all my cup of tea. I felt dead at the end of my day there. The next day we went to the Reina Sofia and I was blown away by Guernica (which I had never before felt much of a connection with). And overall, the collection was more resonate with my life.

    That has nothing to do with education and everything to do with being knocked over by the emotion of the work itself and my own connection to it (which ok, may be informed by my education, I can’t separate it out). I know people who have had that same blown away feeling to Bosch’s The Garden of Delights (in fact, I just read a blog post on it) but for me, it was empty.

    Art is an instinctive human thing. While there are rules and lineages (and knowing about them is something I think is important), what matters more — in my opinion — is being swept up in the piece itself.

    The internet really isn’t a great medium for transformative art. We surf too fast to delve deep, usually. Surface prettiness is more appreciated. (And really, when I’m reading a blog, surface pretty is fine. I don’t need to be knocked off my feet while I’m drinking my morning coffee. It is beyond awesome when it happens, but it isn’t necessary, you know?)

    But that’s a bigger issue, for another time!

  3. By no means am I an art expert. But, during college, I took a Renaissance art class which totally changed my outlook on art. In this class, I learned the context behind the art – which I found was necessary and vital for my appreciation.

    Although I’ve since lost my art appreciation vocabulary, I wanted to say I admire your rose piece. So soft and beautiful, and I love how the eye is drawn gently to the bud.

  4. Thank You all for the comments. I love short or long comments and varied opinions.

    I am not so much talking about generally educating the public on how to look at art (although I think that is needed), but how to look at my art.

    I think you are correct Alexis, the internet is not the best way to share transformative art, but it is what we have. I think if presented well and with the right information it can be effective.

    BTW I had the opposite experience at the Prada, I LOVED IT! It was like Renaissance art history live. I felt honored to see such treasures live even if I would never hang them in my home. Loved Guernica too but I always did.

    Nicole I share your experience with regular visits to the museum’s special exhibits which are always well documented. I have learned to love art I did not like with an understanding of the process and intention behind it.

    I love to learn and I think it enhances all our experiences to be informed.

  5. As someone with no formal art education, and my feet firmly in the decorative arts, I feel intimidated by the idea of formal ‘art appreciation’. I just want to talk with the artist in a way that doesn’t make me feel dumb.
    But showing your art in a way that helps a casual viewer see the nuances is always a plus. I compare that to tasting wine. When I was 18 (legal drinking age in Australia) my parents took me to a wine tasting. Before that I thought wine tasted like wine, but sampling so many in a carefully designed order opened me up to some of the many different flavours, and I began to appreciate wine.
    I try to create something similar for customers at shows when I let them touch swatches of different fabrics, to appreciate the texture and quality of the fabric I use. They don’t have to understand details of textiles, just use their sense of touch to feel the difference.
    I think your duty to your customer (and your bottom line) is to give them a little help to understand why a certain piece appeals to them, and then provide more in depth info as needed. Not all customers are going to appreciate your work on the same level as you do. Sometimes you just have to be happy they appreciate it enough to buy it.

  6. Beautifully explained Chantelle! I don’t strive to formally educate anyone. I am an intuitive artist even with a formal education, but I want to help viewers and customers appreciate.

  7. I have mixed feelings about this, but it may be biased simply because I had too many people try to force extreme modern art concepts down my throat in college :).

    To me, art is a language – perhaps the only one that, ideally, should not require translation. Because of this, I don’t feel it should be necessary to ‘teach’ someone to appreciate art – and this is where the issue of personal preference you mentioned earlier comes in.

    Some people love black and white, for instance, and some people are in love with neon colors. As designers, we can’t help that. As professionals, we also have to digest that on a daily basis.

    On the other hand, I think if you’re speaking to a DESIGNER audience, art appreciation can come into play :).

  8. Thanks Jay!

    I too have mixed feelings about this.

    In both art school and gallery talks I have had the experience of being force fed concepts I don’t buy, and I have formed my own opinions about what I like and why. I have found though that sometimes gaining an understanding of the intentions and process behind a work can help me appreciate it.

    I think what I am concerned about is that we take in so much visually including art that people don’t know how to distinguish good from bad.

    Maybe it doesn’t matter but as someone trying to make a living from art I question how I can best present my work. That could include more information about my concepts and process?

    1. I can understand that, as someone trying to showcase your own work. In that light, I might focus more on what kind of audiences are coming to see it – is it a university setting? A more curated and formal setting? Is it open to anyone in the public, and what kind of people populate that public space..?

      Just to throw some things out there.

      Then I’d figure out how or why they’d be interested in whatever I have to show. That’s essentially the “bridge” I think you’re going for : ).

  9. Jay I am currently showing wherever I can and primarily selling through my website. The internet is not the ideal showcase for art, but also a great resources if you can attract people. Sometimes it takes more than the art. It’s building building a gallery on line, so all the things a physical gallery may include are possible on the website in some way. That may mean artist talks i.e. talking about my work and informing people so they become more interested.

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