Appreciating modern art

I have always had trouble understanding modern art, mainly due to its abstract nature.

I’ve visited several art museums in Europe, where I’ve always come away with the same question – when the classical masters could draw beautiful natural landscapes or scenes that celebrate the lives of ordinary people, why did we move on to the abstract art of Picasso and Monet? At some point, I even thought that there was a need for well-defined artistic standards to quantify what a work of art is worth.

In recent times, my opinions have changed. Last weekend, we went to museum that houses an extensive Picasso collection. At first, I went in with my prejudices – about how his paintings were obscure and had disfigured, disproportionate people. And then, on observing some of his earlier works, I saw how they were close to that of the classical masters – beautiful landscapes and shapely people. I found this quite intriguing.

As I walked through the gallery, I stared at some paintings a little longer. On doing so, I observed them communicating with me in ways I could not fully comprehend. This did not happen with all the pictures, but with a few of them where my experiences could relate to their contents. It seemed as though these paintings were reaching out directly to my sensibilities, while bypassing the faculties of words and logic.

I propose a simple exercise here. Could you spend 5 whole minutes looking at the picture below? Force yourself to spend the next 300 seconds, scanning through the image and taking in whatever you see. During this time, engage with it by taking in its details.

This painting, Guernica, was made by Picasso in response to the Nazi bombings of Basque county. It was Picasso’s reflection on the horrors of war – the broken hilt of a sword, clutched by a severed hand that has a flower blooming on it, laying beside a horse whose insides have been gashed open, indicate this. Parts of Picasso’s drawings may sometimes look simple, like a child has drawn them. But the difference here is that Picasso’s simplicity is a choice. It is the informed simplicity of a master.

And the same is true of other abstract works of literature, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One hundred years of solitude. Back when I read it more than 5 years ago (after 2 failed attempts) I remember thinking about how random and pointless it was. But today, I still remember some of its scenes and characters in vivid detail along with how they made me feel.

In some cases, a work of art can do nothing for you even on engaging with it. That just means your personal experiences and values are not aligned with that of the artist’s. That does not necessarily mean the work is worthless.

Therefore, the worth of art is not a measure of whether you understand it, but whether  it causes something inside of you to change. What I hadn’t realized before is that those two things can be independent. And that is why codified standards, the cornerstones of science and technology, are pointless in the world of art.

As engineers and scientists, the logical and rational equations of our analytical mind govern the default state of our consciousness. In order to truly appreciate art, we must let our defenses down and try and engage with its sometimes cryptic messages at a more humanistic level.

Perhaps that is why art is categorized under the “humanities”.

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