Getting more out of art

October 11, 2016 - 06:20

We can experience art in at least three ways, thinks a professor of psychology who has tried to figure out what art experiences really are.

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Nina Sundbeck-Arnäs Kaasa wants audiences to open themselves up to modern art. It's possible to interpret Hanni Kamaly's «TURNT» without being familiar with modern art. (Photo: Ida Kvittingen/forskning.no)

“Contemporary art’s intention is not necessarily to be beautiful.”

Art historian Nina Sundbeck-Arnäs Kaasa strolls through the galleries of this year’s Autumn Exhibition in Oslo and stops at a life-jacket attached to four telescoping steel supports, or legs.

She thinks this piece can say a lot about the times we live in.

But she isn’t offering any specific interpretations. The idea is to do so ourselves.

Kaasa holds crash courses for neophytes in how to approach modern art at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Oslo.

As a guide at several art museums she has seen her share of sceptical responses to everyday objects and found art on exhibition: “Like, what’s the point? I could have done this myself.”

“We are very used to looking at pictures. I think many people are prejudiced against contemporary art because they judge it as a picture, for instance comparing it to a classical painting. Contemporary art is more of a statement, a question or an idea,” explains Kaasa.

“Some walk by quickly and shake their heads, ‘I don’t understand it.’  But contemporary art requires more time.”

She recommends we pause and find out what we feel. The reward will be a completely different experience of art.

Afraid of being played the fool

She goes from hall to hall in the National Annual Autumn Exhibition, across the street from the Royal Palace Park in Norway’s capital. The exhibition attracts the crowds and has generated everything from praise to outrage since 1882. For many the exhibition represents the epitome of art that is hard to fathom. Among those whose works were initially attacked and ridiculed here is Edvard Munch.

The stroll passes by a fake Adidas jacket and a stained eiderdown blanket. Then there is the painted lavvo erected on the floor, the Sami equivalent of a tepee, and some multi-coloured neon lighting. Kaasas thinks everyone is capable of getting something out of these.

Kaasa knows where the shoe pinches. She works on that problem along with curator Line Engen at the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo. The duo have teamed forces in holding evening courses called “The ABC of Contemporary Art” as a sort of democratic project.

You can get pretty far with just some basic knowledge.

“Many people say they are afraid of sounding dumb,” says Line Engen.

“But I’m really sure that far more than the people who now visit contemporary art exhibitions would be interested if we gave them half a chance,” continues the art historian with convincing enthusiasm.

Duchamp’s urinal

Plenty of people have had their eyes opened and experienced a revelation after attending the evening courses. They say they have gained new insights and approaches to art. Of course, those who attend such lectures probably have a spark of interest already.

Now a book is planned on the basis of the lecture series. Line Engen uses concrete works as examples when she explains terms like performance art and conceptual art. She tells about the artist and the direction of his or her works and hints at possible interpretations.

“It can be useful to know that in conceptual art, for instance, the placing of a urinal in a gallery partly came about as a swift kick to the behinds of the bourgeoisie. They thought they were the only ones who could afford to own artworks. The object may have no intrinsic value – but in the right context everything can be art,” says Engen.

“If you can accept a totally common chair in a room to be art, then it can perk your interest. You understand there is an idea behind it, one which you probably wouldn’t arrive at yourself.”

“Huh? What’s this?” Whoops, wrong question if you want to open your mind to contemporary art, according to art historian Nina Sundbeck-Arnäs Kaasa. “Instead, ask what you see,” she says and looks in at the work “Hortus conclusus” in the National Annual Autumn Exhibition. (Photo: Ida Kvittingen, forskning.no)

She thinks the key word is to explore, and not necessarily to try and understand.

Quantifying the experience

What is it that actually happens to us when we experience art? Is this something that can be measured?

Yes, thinks Rolf Reber. The professor of psychology at the University of Oslo has tried to find out what the experience of art consists of.

Reber disagrees that the public is missing something if they are only feeling art – just having some kind of experience. He points out there are different kinds of experiences. Moreover, he thinks psychologists should be able measure them. If not, then art experiences cannot really be explained.

A few years ago he wrote an article together with the philosopher Nicolas Bullot. The crux of it was a critique of psychology for being so concerned about feelings.

“This is not the whole art experience,” says Reber.

“When we think, we are also experiencing.”

The two researchers attempted to link psychology with art history to achieve some clarity and create a workable framework for psychologists to use when studying art experiences.

Twitch of a smile muscle

As the two see it, there are at least three ways of experiencing art.

Feeling is one of them. But Reber is dissatisfied with research on this point. Dozens of studies measure the intensity of emotions. They might use brain activity or the tiny twitches of the muscles we use to smile, or plane old questionnaires that ask participants to describe their feelings or place them on a scale.

Reber thinks this misses the mark. Usually it will have an impact on such tools of measurement if you become really elated or terribly angry. But most of our feelings about works of art are less intense and they fly below the radar.

Nor do such studies differentiate well between kinds of feelings. Is there a dash of pride in understanding the work? Or maybe melancholy or guilt? Like at the current Autumn Exhibition, are you reminded of drownings, which the life-jacket might be referring to? Is this about the desperate plight of refugees crossing the Mediterranean, where an average of two children per day have drowned this year?

Think like a designer

And what about all the other things that art does with us, things which do not come from spontaneous feelings about a work?

This second level of an art experience is something that affects you, the viewer, when you ponder the designer aspect of a piece. This is where you focus on the materials and try to think what the artist had in mind when she or he decided to use them. This is not far from the exercise Kaasa encourages when she asks us to associate around the materials and the history behind them. Reber thinks researchers could measure how many questions an audience or attendees might have about the intentions behind a work of art.

The third perspective builds upon knowledge. Can we experience more if we know a lot about the context around the work of art? Reber thinks so. It helps then to know the cultural and historical prerequisites of the work, for instance which style or school of art it represents.

“Knowledge is not an experience itself, but this type of experience depends on it,” he says.

Feelings hinged on knowledge

Maybe knowledge can impact emotions.

“Think how you initially don’t register much more than figures or objects when you behold a work. Then you discover that there is some specific fate behind it. That gives you another perspective.”

If you know the work depicts bullfighting you might sympathise more with the ox in the picture than if you just see a man together with an animal. 

Contemporary art can also be pleasing to the eye. In this textile work “Spill” [play, spill] the technique has created a play of colours. The artist Kari Hjertholm used a tool to yank out threads on the reverse side. Knowledge about the history of textile art can open doors to interpretations and approaches to the work. “You can get a different kind of experience if you know that textile art was not accepted as an art form until the late 1960s,” says art historian Nina Sundbeck-Arnäs Kaasa. You also find politics here, if nothing else, in the wish to bring women’s creative histories into the limelight. (Photo: Anu Vahtra)

Such experiences are hard to gauge. As far as Reber knows, no researchers have even tried to measure them with contemporary art as the point of departure.

Yet he does know of a study of people’s reactions to a rather cryptic poem. Those who had been told what it was about reported sensing more than those who started from scratch. Their interest was also stronger.

Theories seem to outnumber practical experiments in this field, admits Reber. His own contribution is also theoretical.

“Psychologists need to start examining things below the surface,” he says.

The professor thinks experiments should be capable of determining whether being tipped off and knowing something extra about a work of art could change what test persons feel about contemporary works. A researcher could run tests giving two groups different background information. But the significance of our entire backgrounds and all our years of cognition, emotions and experiences cannot be easily eliminated in tests on the experience of art.

An unnatural divide

Line Engen thinks it unnatural to draw a line between experiences based on knowledge and ones based on feelings.

“I have thousands of different inroads to art, often simultaneously,” she says. “I can be an art history nerd and still feel that the work does something to me, it stirs me,” says the art historian.

“I can’t explain what part of the experience stems from my knowledge, what relates to something that happened to me as a child, or whether it is the shade of blue in the picture that appeals to me. And that doesn’t really matter.”

Engen and her colleague Nina Sundbeck-Arnäs Kaasa try to teach this sort of open approach in their lectures on contemporary art. It’s a mixed bag of knowledge and emotions.

Using personal experiences

During the lecture talks in the evenings Nina Sundbeck-Arnäs Kaasa tries to trigger curiosity. The art historian presents what she calls a picture essay, in which she associates freely with regard to a number of artworks.

She encourages the use of personal experiences and even brings in TV and social media in addition to research and literature to kick-start people’s ability to fantasise. Contemporary artists usually want to say something about us and our society.

“I never interpret art for the public. I express a bunch of associations from my point of view and try to show how they can do the same. People need to trust their own abilities. A work of art can mean something entirely different to them. There is no correct answer here,” she says

“Contemporary art is a language in a way and you are in a dialogue with the work. The materials speak from their characteristics and stories. But this dialogue will differ from one person to another, depending on their backgrounds. You mustn’t believe a work has a plot you have to figure out. The discourse can develop in different directions as it progresses.”

What should I do if I come to a stop and can’t associate anything?

“You have to permit yourself to think freely. The whole thing is dependent upon letting your fantasy run wild. The nature of contemporary art is that it spurs fantasy and imagination.”

Get rid of preconceptions

The National Annual Autumn Exhibition presented this year’s works in a press release as “giving room to the recipient’s experiences and willingness to contribute their own stories,” adding that “the art emerges as an inquisitive contributor to a larger discourse”.

But the exhibition is here and now. No time for expanding one’s imagination. Is it all hopeless?

Kaasa says “Certainly not.” She encourages me to feel my way along. We are not allowed to touch the works of art, but try to imagine what that would be like. Look at the materials which have been used, the colours and the shapes. How are the various elements placed in relation to one another?  

What do you feel when you behold the work, what do you think it can say about society, yourself and the times we live in? Perhaps it stirs up memories. Or it gets you to think of something outside your reality that is hard to put into words.

Art is often roped off or there are stern guards and signs admonishing against physical contact with works. In a new project, Line Engen, a curator at the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design encourages the public to touch “Møbius stående” [Standing Mobius] and other smooth and cold-to-the-touch sculptures by Aase Texmon Rygh. Maybe this can add an extra dimension to the art experience. (Photo: Annar Bjørgli, National Museum)

Maybe it’s a question of our willingness to accept. We need to rid ourselves of bias and the fear of not getting the point.

You don’t have to understand what the artist has meant or reveal its prospective jab or kick at society. Just try to feel what it does with you.

Don’t get hung up evaluating the quality of the work. Art historian Line Engen says this can spoil the experience.

“The public doesn’t have to consider such matters. Judging quality is the job of the jury and the specialists.”

Offensive art

Engen points out you don’t even need to like a work of art to have a real experience of it.

“What I find offensive, and simultaneously fascinating, is what I return to the most.”

She thinks we can miss an experience if we only think of the work itself and not its surroundings or milieu.

Contemporary art is often a matter of context.

“Some think that the form or shape is fine, and that is enough for them. But you might be missing out on the comment about our era. The artist wants the work to achieve its final form inside you,” says Engen.

“We can talk about strong feelings through art, about life and death, without being private. But to do that, we can’t feel like we are stupid in our meeting with the art,” she says.

“Many contemporary artists are very eager to reach out. So it would be a shame if our use of art history terminology were to make the art too hard for people to grasp.”

Not love after all

She readily admits that art historians don’t have a full understanding of the meaning of a work either. That is hardly the point, as art is supposed to put up some resistance. It is supposed to be slightly difficult, according to Engen. She thinks the philosopher Martin Heidegger understood this – the value of the un-accommodative and wordless art. It can make us stop in our hectic daily lives and think about our existence.

Engen poses the question of how we should relate to things we don’t comprehend.

“Nobody would understand Munch without being familiar with paintings – that these consist of pigments and oil. It can be pretty hard if we don’t understand that the big things in a room are an installation,” she says.

Of course, there is no law against concluding that contemporary art is not your cup of tea.

“It is like any other form of art. You can say you tried it, but it turned out not to be true love.”

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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Translated by
Glenn Ostling

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