Artful Ambivalence


Walking Man II by Alberto Giacometti, National Gallery of Art

To examine our reactions to art – that is what Kat wants us to explore next in our “Find Your Eye: Journey of Inspiration”. What does it mean when we have an extreme negative reaction to an art piece? Looking closely at these emotional and intellectual responses can help us better understand the rules and values that drive our own artistic endeavors.

And so, here I sit in front of my monitor, fingers splayed on the keyboard, watching that pesky blinking cursor and I am completely blocked. Yep, I can’t think of a meaningful thing to say on this subject. So, let’s explore that, shall we?

I have searched my memories of the world-class museums I have visited. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and MOMA in NYC. Chicago’s Art Institute. The American Art Museum and Portrait Gallery in our nation’s capital. Each of these buildings filled to overflowing with “Art with a capital A”. Works by Picasso, Kandinsky, Warhol, Dali, Rembrandt, Monet, Duchamp, Mondrian, Van Gogh – I have seen them all.

I can easily recall pieces that moved or amazed me. Pieces that inspired. The first time I saw a Louise Nevelson sculpture. Discovering the photography of Berenice Abbott. The architectural magnificance of the Chrysler Building. The stained glass of Frank Lloyd Wright. The delicate balance of a Calder mobile.

And then, there is the art that surrounds me, here at home; the pieces we have purchased at local art shows and during our travels. Things with memories and personal history. That fill me with gratitude and happiness each time I see them.

But I have been unable to think of a specific art piece which generated a strong negative response. How can that be?

It appears I am filled with ambivalence about “fine art”, about famous works that have received that label. For me, these pieces seem to require an understanding of historical forces and art movements that I do not possess. They seem to require a scholarly approach to recognize their importance, their meaning. And lacking that, I am unmoved; I can’t connect.

Frankly, I feel stupid and unsophisticated because, much of the time, I simply don’t get it. I do not want to engage art on an intellectual basis alone.

I suppose I view art with a collector’s mind-set. Would I want this in my home? Does this piece make me happy? And if my gut, my heart, says “no”, then I move on.

But in thinking about this further, I wonder if am being fair. Even if art shocks or repels me, shouldn’t I take the time to closely examine why? After all, my emotions have been engaged – negative ones, yes, but the artist has communicated something to me. To simply say “I don’t like it” – isn’t that perhaps the easy way out?

Doesn’t each piece of art have something to teach me? Don’t I owe the artist more than my immediate and visceral reaction?

I don’t know. The heart loves what the heart loves. And isn’t that connection, heart to heart, what art is?

I took the photo above because of the wondrous rippling interplay of light and shade. I wonder what Giacometti’s “Walking Man” thinks of the light show.



Posted on November 8, 2011, in Art and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. I believe that art is definitely about connection and that visceral response. Hhhhmm I was trying to think of when I had a strong negative reaction to a piece of work and I was struggling to come up with stuff. I vaguely remember seeing some adult video footage in the Modern Tate in London that repelled me but other than that nothing really comes to mind. Maybe a negative reaction to a piece is when I feel indifferent to something and have no real reaction at all.

  2. Your image grabbed my attention and my immediate reaction was: oh, Giacometti, I’ve never liked his work…maybe Brenda will explain why I should. Funny, huh? Your photo, of course, is wonderful –I love the light and contrast between the statues! I think it is good to explore why we have negative reactions to some art, but that is different from art that leaves us unmoved. I try to give every artist a chance , but as you say, the heart loves what the heart loves.

    • Gina,
      This exercise has helped me see that I need to be more open – at least to be more aware of the reasons why I don’t like something. Every artist at least deserves our conscious attention.

  3. When I look at a piece of art I either love it and remember it or just move on. Now, maybe I will take more time to really examine it and see what parts of the piece I do like and try to figure what does not speak to me. This would be another important way to learn more about art and myself as well.

    • Ginny,
      I think you have summarized exactly what I was trying to say. By carefully considering both our likes AND dislikes; by exploring the negative, the positive becomes clearer.

  4. Brenda, your values come through loud and clear to me in this post. You value art that connects with your heart, that moves you. You don’t value the intellectual pursuit of understanding art. So this exploration of your reactions – ambivalent instead of strongly negative – gets nicely to the heart of the exercise.

    And I love Giacometti – probably because he’s Italian, so I saw a lot of them in Italy. They remind me of my exploration of art there. 🙂 What I find interesting about his work is that his sculptures, drawings and paintings all have a very similar style and is so recognizable. You presented this sculpture wonderfully, contrasted with the lines of the light, shadow and building in the background.

    • Kat,
      I’m so glad that you were able to hear what I was so desparately trying to get across. And to find that I didn’t completely fumble this assignment.
      I am glad to provide you with a happy memory of your time in Italy. This was such a striking arrangement of these two sculptures – the only items on this walkway. It appeared as if they were having a conversation. (Of course, for me, it was all about the shadows 🙂

  5. Brenda, I think the Walking Man just wants to get to the lady (?) statue at the other end. OH, but the light, the shadows, the lines and reflections, all those lovely triangles echoing even the floor tile, the two statues positioned so perfectly in the frame…what a marvelously composed WORK OF ART you have created here. Aside from that, I think your post really does get to the heart of the matter, no pun intended.

    • Lee,
      Actually, I think you are quite correct – he is certainly striding with great purpose toward the other end of that walkway, isn’t he? And many thanks for your kind words about this image. It was taken with my “little” point-and-shoot, prior to upgrading to the Canon G11. Returning to DC is high on my wish list.

  6. I love the photo too, such beautiful light & lines.
    I’d love to do more art gallery visiting, something i really would like to make some time for.

    • Leanne,
      The architecture of this art gallery was really stunning – with a roof of skylights creating amazingly complex intersections of light and shadow on the walls and floor below. Going back to DC, with all that I have learned about phhotography in the interim, is high on my list of travel wishes.It is a puzzle to me how I often resist making the time to visit local shows when I know how much I enjoy the experience.

  7. Once again a wonderful, thought provoking post! I like your statement “I simply don’t get it.” I often feel the same way and walk on. I think we’re all learning the need to stop and evaluate art with a different eye. For instance, I really don’t care for the sculpture in your image. But your photo is beautiful. I can learn by looking at your compostion and your use of the light that created the wonderful lines.

    • Cathy,
      I took this photo not because of the sculptures but because of the amazing light show. But now I am glad that I included them in the composition – for me, they add an interesting story element that would have been missing if I had excluded them. This comes from all that I have learned in the 18 months since I took this shot.

  8. So much to think about here. I – too – have difficulty with ‘classic’ art..with the ‘art’ of the Renaissance (for example)….more. I sometimes find myself wandering through museums with my eyes glazed over..not wanting or wiling to understand what it is that isn’t engaging me. Although I can appreciate the intricacies in some of the famous oil paintings that depict scenes of war – to me..they are scenes of war. They represent death and destruction…and a part of life that I’d rather not know about or see.
    So perhaps I’ve answered my own question. The ‘negative’ responses – perhaps..and at times – are about what I’d rather not look at even if the subject matter is a part of life.
    A wonderful post..and an intriguing image of the Giacometti sculpture.

    • Marcie,
      You have described my feelings exactly for much of museum art – the eye-glazing-thing, oh yes! As well as my avoidance of looking closely at things that are uncomfortable – like death, destruction, racism, sexism, etc. While I understand intellectually the importance of using art to highlight societal issues, I still come back to wanting my art to be “pretty”, to make me happy. I appreciate your thoughtful reply.

  9. Interesting discussion here. I was really drawn to your photo because it is so you. The geometric lines and shadows that you capture so well frame the sculpture.

    The heart loves what it loves, so exploring what creates ambivalence and negative reactions is an exercise in self-awareness – embracing the light and the shadow.

    I react negatively to strong, garish, and chaotic colors – maybe a response to my sensitivity to the messiness and cruelty that life can sometimes bring. It’s important for me to face where that is present in me.

    • Kim,
      Yes, it is that effort to become more self-aware – to analyze the nature of my negative reactions and ambivalence. To better know myself and therefore my art.

  10. This is a wonderful photograph Brenda!

  11. I think you know me well enough that my answer won’t surprise you! When I look at art, any art, I see it in terms of story — of setting, character, plot. Story.

    If I know something about the artist — O’Keefe said that color was what made life worth living, Kandinsky tried to paint sound, Monet lived on beans in Paris — then history adds to the depth of the story. But I don’t always know the background, so I just go with what I see and learn from that.

    Nathan Bransford has a great blog post about how a writer can learn something from any book, even ones we dislike. There’s always something there to learn from. How does the story work? What makes it tick? What made this book “work” enough to reach the grail of getting published? I’m not sure if the same philosophy would work for visual art, but I like to use it anyway. Usually there is something I can take out of it, some kind of spark — or window. 🙂

    • Lisa,
      I am slowly learning to see the story in the works of others and to find the story in my own images. I am also learning that my negative or ambivalent reactions are a source of self-awareness. Like you, I find knowing the history of an artist or art piece increases my enjoyment of that work because it provides context and relevance – a hook on which to relate. As you have so wisely pointed out, all art can teach us something.

I greatly appreciate your comments!

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