Is art too clever or are we too stupid?

Copyright © Charles Thomson,
Copyright © Charles Thomson,

I don’t get art. I like it (I think), and I find the idea of art exciting. But sometimes it just goes right over my head and I wonder if it’s my problem or whether contemporary is just, you know, pretentious bullshit.

The problem seems to be that most other forms of culture, like literature, film and music, are in general quite easy to understand. We know what the connotations of minor key are in a song, we get when someone in a novel or a film is looking in a mirror that perhaps they’re not being completely honest. We can understand the layers of meaning more easily than with art. But that’s because films, TV, books and music are so familiar to us. We see it and hear it everywhere; it’s all around us all the time and TV especially has become a lot of people’s default leisure pursuit, so it’s no wonder that most people could probably complete a MPhil on their favourite series of Downton Abbey without much trouble.

Art is different, apart from Jack Vettriano calendars and Klimt prints in Ikea, in general we don’t get much regular exposure to it. So when we do make the effort to go out and look at some, it isn’t as instantly understandable as we’re used to when consuming culture and we, or at least I, feel a bit like I should really understand it so either I’m stupid or the work is balls.

When I go to see some art, unless something grabs me I’m unlikely to hang around looking at it trying to work out what it means. The signifier of meaning are still mystical to me, I don’t have the same experience that I do with other forms of culture so it’s like being asked to read something in a different language and then being laughed at when you can’t explain what it all meant. Perhaps that is what makes people so resistant to art; no one likes being made to feel stupid and art can do that, especially the more contemporary stuff.

There’s the obvious question as well; do the people in the art world really want us slobs getting into it and turning up to openings and quaffing all the pinot noir? If art was too easy for people to understand it will lose it’s exclusivity, and doubtless there are some people that like art simply for that reason. Why else would a pickled shark sell for $8 million? Who wants to look at that when they’re eating dinner? (Although of course the obvious place for it would be the bathroom – there’d be no more hanging around looking at Facebook until your arse goes numb if you had a dead shark gurning at you.)

There’s a fine line between something being accessible and it being dumbed down to the point that even a single celled amoeba would find it obvious and cliched, but some art seems to go in the opposite direction; to run away from the possibility of anyone other than the artist understanding it. My favourite thing about anything like films or literature is the fact that no matter what the real meaning is (if there even is such a thing) you can interpret it however you like. I forget about that when I’m looking at art because I just don’t have the confidence to apply my own interpretation, art feels like something with a specific meaning that you either get or you don’t. I want to enjoy art more and feel stupid less, so next time I’m going to decide for myself what it means to me, even if that turns out to be nothing at all. Maybe I’ll know art, or maybe I’ll just know what I like, but that’s a start at least.

If you like this you should read my review of Lee Bul at the Ikon gallery and my blog on the film versus the book. Plus follow me on Twitter @SallyWJones, it’s the right thing to do.

4 thoughts on “Is art too clever or are we too stupid?

  1. An interesting thing about your post is that you loosely separate creative genres into: art, music, literature and film. This is interesting because of the way conceptual art of all kinds (including video, installation, sound sculpture, and performance) all get lumped in with visual art. I think conceptual art belongs in a different category, because it usually doesn’t use any of the tools of visual art and doesn’t have the same objectives. In fact, it started out as a movement against visual art. My guess is your problem is probably with conceptual art, like Damien Hirst’s shark tank, rather than with visual art, such as paintings. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, and also writing about. I think visual art needs to be rescued from its association with conceptual art. (If you’re interested you can read my article about it here:


    1. Hi Eric, thanks for the comment.

      Yep I’m definitely lumping stuff together probably unfairly but mostly as a way to talk about it succintly, hopefully.

      I like art but not having any expertise other than one term of an art & design BTEC I certainly think of myself as an outsider to the art world, which is a situation I think a lot of people find themselves in. I know there’s a difference between the different mediums and think most people get that (a sculpture or installation is clearly different from a painting, etc). I think a lot of people without a background knowledge of art would feel the same way about visual art in general, not just the conceptual stuff, that’s just the most obvious thing to latch on to as an example of something that can make people feel stupid when they see it. I’ve seen paintings, even classical stuff, and felt like I’m not really getting it. It’s a nice picture, looks good technically, but is that it? Sometimes it needs more explanation and when people are used tp consuming culture and getting it straight away, then art seems like more of a challenge and less like a leisure activity.

      Having said that, conceptual art is definitely the stuff that gets most people angry, and the most headlines!

      Liked by 1 person

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