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Is there an art to consuming art?

Good or bad, in-between or neither, we respond to art for the way it makes us feel
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Over time, scholars have attempted to create systems to evaluate art. COURTESY OF OYVIND HOLMSTEAD/CC FLICKR
Over time, scholars have attempted to create systems to evaluate art. COURTESY OF OYVIND HOLMSTEAD/CC FLICKR

Is the question “Friends or How I Met Your Mother?” the modern-day version of “ ‘Mona Lisa’ or ‘The Starry Night?’ ” In the age of digital media, art has found its way into our everyday lives — and naturally, that is accompanied by opinions.

Even if you consider yourself a philistine of sorts, chances are that art plays some important role in your life. It may be bingeing Euphoria with your best friends, listening to 1980’s hit songs with your dad, or — like Jess in New Girl — watching Dirty Dancing to get past a breakup. The way we consume new media — and develop opinions about it — demonstrates how the practice of casually criticizing art is a lot more common than we give it credit for.

Over the course of time, scholars have worked to devise a cohesive system of evaluation when consuming art. Essentially, they have all attempted to decide on what art is universally good, and what is universally bad. 

Take famous philosopher David Hume, for example. The philosopher was adamant on the existence of a ‘standard of taste’ — a recipe for the legitimate art critic, whose opinion is unbiased and who can see art for what it really is. 

If Hume were to travel through time to today, he would be quite unimpressed with your roommate’s unstructured rant on why Quentin Tarantino is overrated. He would probably say that your roommate’s argument is seeping with bias, and that their opinions about the filmmaker haven’t been “perfected by comparison,” or are not “cleared of all prejudice.” 

But there’s value in challenging the idea that bias in art interpretation is unconditionally bad. Do we have to think without bias when viewing art? In other words, isn’t part of the experience exactly that ⎯ the bias and perspective you peer through it with? 

A wonderful example of the beauty of bias in art criticism can be seen with the famous Pixar movie Ratatouille. The end of the film shows the cold, unfriendly food critic taking a bite of a meal and instantly being taken back to his warm, happy days as a child, when his mother used to make the same meal. Whether it is food, a film, or a painting, art by its very nature is meant to conjure up some feeling or emotion. To isolate art from your personal experiences is to deny its very purpose. 

As much as I can appreciate professional art critics and their contributions — which include film award nominations, beautifully crafted points on the art in museums, and a long list of other things — it is equally as important to appreciate the pure subjective nature of art. There is a certain beauty in the fact that what can mesmerize one person could be meaningless for another. 

A great example of the complex nature of art criticism is the controversy of a famously expensive blue painting that went viral several years back. A New York Post article about it was cheekily titled “$43.8 million for this?!” The abstract painting was a large blue canvas crossed by one broad stroke of white — a piece that anyone, regardless of their artistic talent, could create. Ultimately, the painting — created by artist Barnett Newman — sold in a bidding war for, as the article says, “more than most Manhattan penthouses.” The world of high-end art might not make much sense to anyone outside of a tiny bubble of art critics, but proves just how polar art interpretation can be.

There is a divide between mass culture and high art, but as Nicholas Brown argues in Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art under Capitalism, perhaps this calls for a reimagining of art itself. This reimagining may take the shape of challenging the institutionalization of art and the binary of good and bad that comes along with it. As art continues to be commodified and become more accessible to everyone, we have an opportunity to change our approach from evaluating art with a series of absolutes to embracing the difference in opinions and the debate it brings forth. 

Simply put, what is art’s purpose, if not to be interpreted? Whether it’s good or bad, in-between or neither, we watch and consume art for the way it makes us feel.   

Ultimately, consuming art isn’t a public experience — it is an individual one. And its individual, subjective nature is what makes for such seemingly endless but fascinating conversations on the matter. 

So next time you’re going on a rampage explaining to your friends why they just need to watch Squid Game, know that you’re proving the point of art — to evoke something in its viewers. Because what makes the realm of art so uniquely different, so uniquely human, is that the way in which each person interprets it can never exactly be the same. There is something so deeply profound about the fact that each person’s experience of one piece of art is bound to be different, no matter how subtly.