Wednesday, October 3, 2012

'Understanding' Art

One of my favourite works of art is Eugene von Guerard’s North-east view of the northern top of Mount Kosciusko.

It illustrates a beautiful aspect of the Australian landscape in the second half of the nineteenth century, and captures the unrelenting power and magnitude of nature against the tiny human figures in the foreground. It was also one of the first significant works of art presented to me in year seven art. Having just started high school, I was excited to be in an art class that didn’t involve Clag paste and crayons. Staring at the depth of the mountain ranges and the looming dark clouds, I was in complete awe of the scene and the artist who possessed the skill and imagination to capture the emotion of a place so beautifully. That memory, my foray into ‘grown-up’ art, remains with me as the beginning of a love and appreciation for the art world.

Someone I know recently said to me that she doesn’t ‘understand art’. This is interesting as she works in an art gallery, as do I, and this person has taught me so much of what I know about the collection within our institution. Although she’s not one of the curators or conservators that we have the privilege of working with every day, she still knows far more than the average punter. Above all, in front of certain works that appeal to her, she’s a great story teller.

Not everyone who works in an art gallery will have a PhD in art history. Sure, it’s highly advisable that our senior curators have some academic qualifications but for most of us, my colleague and I included, it’s often just what we learn on the job coupled with a personal interest.

But, for her to claim that she doesn’t understand art, and to talk down her authority on the matter, made me think about all the times we feel inept at qualifying or even expressing our views on a topic, particularly within the arts and especially if it’s considered high brow. Fine art certainly carries an air of eminence which can lead to some entire sectors of our society to feel intimidated just stepping into an institution such as an art gallery.

I think it’s quite common to feel at various times that we don’t possess the language, the vocabulary, to describe some of life’s indulgences: fine art; opera; ballet; poetry; heck, even wine. That definitely does not mean we can’t still enjoy them. Especially the wine.  I’m reminded of a tweet Alain de Botton wrote earlier this week, “Most of what makes a book ‘good’ is that we’re reading it at the right moment for us.” Much of what we like, or find pleasurable, in life is naturally informed by our own experiences, memories, background, values and desires. So forget the discourse around composition, aesthetics, brush strokes and eloquence of form. Stuff what the critics say. What feelings does the art evoke in you? What memories does it conjure? If it matters enough to you, then it matters.

The art world would generally agree that Eugene von Guerard was a great painter and he certainly had a significant influence on many other artists after him. However, his North-east view has remained one of my favourites for the simple fact that it brings to life my memories of being 12, staring at an A4 size print of the work and remembering that it made me smile. I also recall visiting the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra several years later and standing in front of the original work for the first time. I still don’t consider myself an expert in art, colonial Australian painters or von Guerard, not even close. But I don’t have to be. My emotional connection to that work is enough. Anyone who has an emotional connection to an artwork is qualified enough to appreciate it, discuss it and share it with others.


  1. A delightful read Biheng. What an eloquent writer you are!

    1. Thank you, Renata. I'm so pleased you enjoyed reading it. x