When my relationship with art got easier
Part of being an adult is the ability to comfortably say, “I don’t know.”
Art…what can I say about art? Until recently, very little. Practically nothing, in fact.
Growing up with a mom who has a natural eye for design and ain’t too shabby with a pencil and sketchpad, she lavished me with art supplies — hoping I would share a modicum of her interest and talent. Unfortunately for her, I was far more interested in playing catch with my dad, befriending random armadillos that wandered into our yard, and pretending to be She-Ra, Princess of Power. Not to mention, I had zero artistic ability. I couldn’t color inside the lines, trace, use glue without getting it in my hair, draw a circle, or cut out even the simplest shape without hacking right through it. In art classes throughout elementary school, my work was regularly referred to as “interesting,” and not in a good way; even as a kid I understood the subtleties of tone. “Interesting” versus interesting — two very different things.
But I didn’t really care because, simply put, art bored the pants off of me.
In my early teens my parents took me to New York City and one afternoon we popped into the Museum of Modern Art. I remember very little from that particular experience aside from touching something I wasn’t supposed to, getting yelled at and spending the rest of the time standing in the middle of each room and spinning around on one foot in an attempt to see everything in one fell swoop. Needless to say, we cut our time at MOMA a bit short. After that, art pretty much disappeared from my life. High school meant no more mandatory art classes and that was fine by me.
It wasn’t until I returned to New York to spend a summer taking classes at NYU that art made its way back into my life. But this time, I welcomed it with open arms. As a 19-year-old, not yet legally allowed to drink, my friends and I had a knack for scoping out places and events that took a more cavalier attitude towards minors boozing it up.
And in Manhattan, that meant hitting up every indie art show, exhibit, and gallery within a 50 block radius. Suddenly art took on a whole new meaning in my life. No longer was it something I had to do because the state of Texas said so. No longer was it my parents dragging their surly teen to look at paintings when all she wanted to do was hang out in Washington Square Park and look at the cute NYU boys.
During that summer back in New York, art became a social activity for me. A time to get dressed up, go out with my friends, and scrounge up free food and alcohol. I met new people, I made out with a hot cater waiter in a coat room, I stood in front of pieces and made unintelligible chit-chat about color palettes and brush strokes. I met artists and parroted back things I’d heard along the way like, “Your work is so visceral” and “The juxtaposition of light and dark truly depicts human suffering.”
Whether these sentiments made any sense or related to the specific artist I was talking to, I had no idea. Nor do I still. I just knew that saying them made me feel smart and cool — like I actually belonged and wasn’t just there for the free potstickers and white wine.
However, after leaving New York at the end of the summer, art once again faded out of my life. It had served its purpose; it provided me inexpensive nights out on the town, chances to mingle (and suck face) with interesting people I likely wouldn’t have otherwise, and the chance to acquire a taste for alcoholic beverages that didn’t originate from a keg or trashcan. But my biggest takeaway, whether I realized it at the time or not, was that my horizons had been broadened and my association to art had been forever altered. I wasn’t exactly an art lover, but I’d developed a whole new appreciation for it.
Like an old booty call that refuses to lose your number, art once again resurfaced in my life nearly a decade later. I’d been living in LA for a few years when the embarrassment I endured on a regular basis over the fact that I’d never been to the Getty became too much for me to bear. So, one day a girlfriend and I went.
Once again, I found myself bored.
After about 20 minutes I told my friend I’d be outside, the one area of the Getty I could truly appreciate. A similar experience happened the first time I went to LACMA but without gorgeous grounds to escape to, I was forced to seek refuge in a glass (or 3) of Prosecco at the bar. I feared my ability to appreciate art had fled the scene and I’d somehow returned to that surly teenager flippantly spinning her way through MOMA, completely unaware of the beauty and mastery she was spurning.
Fearing a life labeled as a troglodyte, I decided to give it one more try. During a month spent in New Haven, CT last summer, I tagged along with an artsy friend to a couple of the art galleries on the Yale University campus. It was there and then I realized that art didn’t bore me, it intimidated the hell out of me.
Because I knew nothing about it, I felt as though I had no right to state my opinion. I couldn’t make meaningful insights, comment on who or what had obviously influenced a particular artist, or discuss technical aspects of the piece itself.
Aside from “I like this one” and “This one bugs me,” I was rendered speechless — a state I am not used to experiencing. As we stood among pieces from the Dada Movement, I explained my dilemma to my friend. Her response blew me away. Very matter-of-factly, she said, “That’s totally fine. All you need to know and all that matters is whether a piece speaks to you or not.” And with those two sentences, the veil was lifted.
I think I used to look at art like a math equation — something to be solved with one correct answer. Someone would ask, “What do you think this artist was trying to say?” and I’d suddenly hear the Jeopardy theme song and become filled with test anxiety. But once my friend told me my opinion is all that matters, I was instantly free to take in art on my terms.
Sure, I still stumble over my words at art galleries when someone asks, “What do you think of this?” Especially if after I say “Me like” or “Me no like,” they then ask, “Why?” But part of being an adult is the ability to comfortably say, “I don’t know.” This isn’t always my response. Sometimes I know exactly why I do or don’t like a particular piece. Other times, I don’t. And that’s okay. Art, in all its various forms, is fun and stimulating. At times it’s emotional or visceral. Sometimes it’s confusing and overwhelming. And yes, every now and then it can be boring.
But then there are those moments when you stumble upon a piece that fills you with pure joy and utter bliss. Perhaps that’s why it’s said that art reflects life. Maybe not. I don’t know. What I do know is that art no longer bores nor terrifies me and art-related events are still a great place to score free alcohol.