Many years ago I was having dinner with a friend and I have remembered a conversation with her husband often since then. He said he didn’t understand why his taxes should support the local community theatre if he wasn’t interested in seeing it. Why pay to support art that you don’t like? I was dumbfounded. My parents were both musicians and very supportive of the arts and it never occurred to me that everyone didn’t feel the same way. I’ve thought about this off and on over the years (especially when my son argued that going to a museum was a waste of time). It’s easy to say art brings beauty into our lives when standing in front of a Matisse or Degas. It gets trickier to defend splashes of paint or what seem to be random brushstrokes. Even more so when a painting seems to have little visual interest. A square canvas, the top half is white, the bottom half is black. What is it about? What does it mean? I have often looked at minimalist art and felt impatient, insecure as I wonder, why don’t I “get” it? It occurs to me that I could be more open to new ideas in art, but what? What am I looking for?
Bill and I went to an exhibit of Bruce Nauman’s work at the Museum Of Modern Art in NYC last week. I didn’t get it. But a quote at the entrance to the exhibit helped me to understand. “For Nauman, both making art and looking at art involve ‘doing things that you don’t particularly want to do, putting yourself in unfamiliar situations, following resistance to find out why you’re resisting.’ His art compels viewers to relinquish the safety of the familiar, keeping us alert, ever vigilant, and wary of being seduced by easy answers”. So I let go of the familiar, such as “knowing what this is about” and asked different questions, knowing that the answers will be different for everyone.
Now I would tell my friend’s husband that the purpose of art isn’t just to beautify our lives. It’s to keep us thinking, asking questions and being wary of easy answers, like dismissing differences between us as inevitable or believing someone in power because he (or she) said it is so.