The Intimidation of Art

Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_John_Singer_Sargent,_1884Madame X by John Singer Sargent

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“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.” ― René Magritte

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A long time ago in a land far away, which in real time would be over 20 years ago, I used to work in the art business.

I grew up and into the business side of it. Art was the world which surrounded me, as my father was an artist.

As a child I spent time with him in his studio, watching his paintings manifest from within him onto a canvas. The finished pieces were suspended on hooks which were part of floor to ceiling metal structures that resembled a surrealist sculptor’s idea of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man clothed in robes of vibrant hue. This made the studio appear to be a city made of paintings, of colourful skyscapers, populated by beautiful giants, which towered over my small self.

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Ulysses and Circe _Bartholomäus_SprangerUlysses and Circe by Bartholomeus Spranger

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Art was all around me, it was familiar, my home.

When we’d visit museums, my little legs struggling to keep up with the pace of my father, my miniature body being jostled by crowds of adults, I sometimes felt intimated, but not by the art. The magnificent works which filled the walls and rooms reassured me that all would be well, that if I ever got lost in the crowd I could find a safe haven within them. They offered a doorway into another world, and invitation to explore the power of imagination.

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Frith_A_Private_ViewA Private View at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith

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So it was a shock to my older and working in a gallery self when people would express a feeling of being intimidated by art. One sentence which was often repeated in various forms was – I know nothing about art, but I know what I like. The first part of the sentence was a heartfelt confession, the flourish at the end was a bluff, the mind covering the tracks of a confession which perhaps revealed too much. This was sometimes said to me by people who appeared on the surface to be intimidating, not the sort who I would consider could ever be intimidated.

I could understand why they might find the business side of art intimidating, it does at times use the art of intimidation to sell, as many businesses do. It can be subtle, a suggestion of a looming shadow which can be banished by doing what the salesman is instructing. It can be bold and vivid in tone, the salesman, critic, expert, connoisseur, can make the client, collector, enthusiast, feel small and the only way to be big again is by ‘eating this’ – ‘this’ being whatever the salesman is offering and telling you that this is.

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C.W.Peale_The Artist in His MuseumThe Artist in His Museum by Charles Willson Peale

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The art business intimidated me too, and I eventually ran away from it, never regretting fleeing rather than staying and fighting. However art has never intimidated me, it is a friend, an ally, a wonderful balm in a sometimes chaotic world. It can bring order to the chaos.

What is there to know about art other than what you like. The history of art, the story behind the creation of a piece, the meaning of the piece itself, the artist, their biography, their intention and inspiration, all these are a frame around a beating heart.

The frame can enhance, inform, complement, give an edge to a piece, but ultimately the piece stands alone, and sometimes is more impressive without a frame. It is the piece itself which matters, and it speaks for itself. It needs no one else to speak for it. And the conversation it has with each beholder is an intimate interlude for your eyes only.

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Theotokópoulos,_Doménikos_-_Allegory_with_a_Boy_Lighting_a_Candle_in_the_Company_of_an_Ape_and_a_Fool_(Fábula)_-_c._1600An Allegory with a Boy Lighting a Candle in the Company of an Ape and a Fool (Fábula) by El Greco

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Look with the eyes of your heart. What you see with the eyes of your mind is a frame, and if your mind knows nothing about art, then let your heart teach you what you need to know.

This may sound naive, but there are times when being naive is the best way to appreciate the world and that which is in it. Then art will never intimidate, it will inspire.