KCAC Forum Magazine Nov 1993
EMBRACING THE UNFAMILIAR
by Deanne Pearson
Exhibitions of art from distinctly different cultures, such as “Gods Guardians and Lovers” currently on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art bring up an interesting question. How do you approach art that is so unfamiliar?
Looking at art with a European history, we know what to expect. We recognize the stories, understand the symbols, and can grasp, at least at some primary level, the nuances in the works.
Think about it. As Americans, most of us share a certain level of cultural literacy. We all have had an elementary exposure to the culture and history of ancient Egypt Greece, and Rome. We all know the basic timeline of European history and should be aware of America evolution as a nation. And we all are part of the modern era of music videos, Rodney King, and car phones.
Einstein once said, “It is not possible to make an observation unless the observer has a theory to bring to bear on what he is looking at.” In other words, we tend to see things in terms of what we know.
Doesn’t it follow then that the primary key to understanding the unfamiliar is education. In order to understand art produced by unfamiliar cultures such as that of India, Australia, even Central America, we must learn something about the cultures themselves. We must educate ourselves through reading, exploring, asking questions. We must begin to understand the purposes and meanings behind the work.
Regarding “Gods, Guardians and Lovers,” the Nelson-Atkins has presumed our lack of cultural familiarity and has built into the show several experiences with Indian culture. The show includes a short video tape focusing on Indian temples, their purpose, and their history. The exhibition’s chat labels and wall plaques are brimming with information about the Indian religion, culture and symbolism. If you’re a patient and persistent reader, you can broaden your understanding of the works immensely. Additionally, the museum has arranged for several live performances of Indian music and dancing to further educate and enlighten viewers.
Beyond all that, we must rely on our own understanding of humanity to provide us an “in” to unfamiliar art. Generally speaking, art is a direct manifestation of man’s (and I use that term to encompass men and women) desire to create and communicate his or her existence. It is born out of the need to say “I was here. I did this. I mattered.” Whether the resulting creation is a bull on the wall of a cave in Lascaux or a portrait of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, art can be enjoyed and understood at the most fundamental level purely as creation. We may not agree with the presented interpretation of beauty, or
understand its intended message. But we can appreciate the fact that some one created it, regardless of the reason.
Nathan Knobler sums it up well in his book The Visual Dialogue: An Introduction to the Appreciation of Art. He writes, “The meaning of art does not lie exclusively in its function as a mirror of life; for some it serves primarily as a source of sensuous and intellectual satisfaction that needs no external referent.”
So when faced with art that is unfamiliar, relax. Revel in its simple existence. Appreciate what aesthetic qualities you can. Simply enjoy it because it is art. Then, if you want to understand it, educate yourself. Ask questions. Read. Broaden your horizons, so next time that which is unfamiliar, won’t be.