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Every creative work ever conceived has been driven by inspiration. The source may be joyous or melancholic, real or imaginative, or at times dredged up from the depths of subconscious intuition. Nonetheless, a context. The viewer may choose to be interested in knowing this context — whether stylistic, historical, personal, socio-cultural, political — or simply engage with the output because the work itself takes precedence. Choosing to view art with a pristine uncoloured perspective can certainly be refreshing in itself but delveloping an understanding for the latent nuances can transform it into something breathtakingly powerful. Alone, its potential could remain unrealised.
Across ages, professions and cultures, people have time and again raised these questions. Why explain a work of art? Is it important to gauge its technicalities, emotion and raison d’être? In fact, is it even ethical to do so? Are we going against the very spirit behind the process of creating art by trying to explain it to ourselves and to the world?
Human beings inherently question, reason, like or dislike — to varying degrees — every object and experience in life. Our interaction with art, as with our surroundings, reveals a story that defines us as an individual and as a socio-cultural being. Those who are invested in art for the sake of its intrinsic experience would say that they do not care whether the artist was, in their capacity as an individual person, starving or divorced or a tyrant. The viewer’s aesthetic experience upon seeing the work is more than enough.
To quote David Lister, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, “Ambiguity is often at the core of great art” (2009). Explanation imposes constraints on the work and limits the experience for the viewer, both present-day and in the future. I respectfully disagree. As a viewer, we do not need to dive straightaway into the artists’ explanation of their work. Allow it to add perspective and insight. Context makes every work of art more meaningful in the larger picture.
Reconstruction of the bookcase that covered the entrance to the Frank's secret hideout in the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. | Wikipedia
Take for example, the simple photograph inside Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam.
The first reaction evokes nothing spectacular. A simple cupboard in the corner of a modest room. But take the picture in along with the context: Behind this cupboard, Anne Frank wrote her diary before being caught and sent to the concentration camps. The bookcase concealed the entrance to the living space of eight Jews hiding from the Nazis during the Holocaust. Now, that lends the simple image with a certain undeniable gravitas. Knowing the context allows us to empathise with what we see.
How many times has it occurred that you saw just another potentially boring society painting or astonishingly overpriced abstract art, albeit a famous one, and shrugged it off? The reason you were indifferent to it is most likely because you did not know the story behind it. Art is an aesthetic expression of one’s impressions. It is meant to stimulate the senses. A work of art without context is an incomplete piece of communication. In that, it may occasionally seem as if the artist is failing us whereas it might be the other way around in truth.
Next, let’s take one specific painting, The Weeping Woman (1937) by Pablo Picasso.
The Weeping Woman , painted in 1937, is located in Tate Modern, London. | Wikipedia
Picasso is a household name. And yet, most people have only a vague idea of some art style called Cubism. One might have some idea about the technique that is distinctly visible in Cubist paintings, but the maestro’s motivation, inspiration, work style remain often disregarded. Picasso was one of the founding fathers of Cubism which uses fragmented figures, abstract geometric forms and multiple vantage points.
In this particular masterpiece, the composition and each colour of the painting are evidently striking with respect to its subject of sorrow. An unforgettable piece, certainly. Several interpretations of this painting exist. Most say this is a witness to Guernica’s bombing by the German troops during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), a distinctive yet universal image of suffering. It is said to be a protest against tyranny while representing the artist’s inner torment as a reaction to the misery caused.
Now, the other side. What is undisputed is the fact that the subject of the painting is his lover of the day, Dora Maar. An enigmatic professional photographer with a vehement left-wing ideology, she experimented with proto-Surrealist photomontages. Maar is in fact the subject of several paintings, always depicted in pain. While many applaud Picasso’s great ability to convey emotions, it is impossible to ignore that he is thought to have been a masochist and also in the habit of ruthlessly abusing the women he painted or was in relationships with. Françoise Gilot, his next lover, quotes the artist’s own account on Marr,
For a viewer, the additional context is important to acknowledge not to be blinded by any singular rhetoric.
As a relentless advocate of respect for contrasting perspectives, I believe that we all are free to interpret art in our own special way. Art does not necessarily require a thesis to support its existence. Yet, with the context, we are offered the possibility of peeking into the soul of the artist and experiencing it in deeper ways — we even see pain and torment transform into ecstatic beauty in the creative expressions of Rumi, Van Gogh, Charlie Chaplin.
The artist’s rendering is only a part of the larger context of the piece of art. We need to learn to listen for the myriad voices that inform and shape its nature. The more we discover, the more enriched we stand.
Intellectual speculation is generally owned by a few industry experts. Artistic expression seems to have been taken over and now monopolised by a swarm of curators, buyers, critics, art historians and theoreticians who define its economic value in gold or indifference. The Netflix horror-thriller film Velvet Buzzsaw is a somewhat cynical but wry take on one such contemporary art world scene of LA where artists and mega-collectors allow greed to overpower the true spirit of art.
Footnotes elevate the art itself, weaving it into a perennial thing with meaningful layers that persist through time. In addition to that, it makes it accessible and less elitist. Even the most cynical, disinterested individuals are known to change their attitude towards art after a few hours of engaging in art appreciation. Understanding even the basics of how to look at art — with the help of form, composition, colour, iconography, knowing whether it was a commissioned piece, and other such seemingly prosaic details — renders it much less alienating and arouses a curiosity to discover more. Art is a passion which needs to be discussed and discovered with intensity.
Art with context is beauty with brains. You do not have to pick one; you can always be open to both.