Ready? Picture this: A man visits a trendy, modern art exhibition. Surrounded by velvet rope is a pile of garbage. Literally! On display — is a pile of trash. The man stares at the art in front of him. He wonders, “how could a pile of trash be considered art?” Suddenly, everything clicks. The man begins to cry. He finally understands the meaning behind this exhibit, and it deeply resonates with him.
What actually happened? To avoid feeling like a philistine, the man invented a story to infuse the pile of trash with meaning. Once the budding story sprouted inside the man’s mind, the garbage transformed into art. Perhaps the exhibit represents the dangers of environmental degradation, the pains of inequality, or the depths of the human unconscious.
A story is the shortcut to converting anything into “art.” Then what separates real art from pseudo art?
Let’s try something. Think of anything you consider to be art. Now imagine showing this to a child — or a kind of alien — with no understanding of culture, language or stories. Does the art still evoke some kind of emotion in the child-alien?
We are genetically programmed to disproportionately respond to certain sensory cues. These include warmth, saturated hues, faces, rhythmic beats, symmetrical, rounded and smooth objects, sensuous textures and more.
The difference between a powerful piece of art and pseudo art is if the art makes you feel something before your inner narrator kicks in to craft a story around what you’re experiencing. A special piece of music will do this automatically. You may listen to a good song and feel something bubbling within you before you even understand why. The rhythm may just do that to you.
I used to work at a summer camp and one night I brought a group of five year olds out to stargaze. One kid started to bawl the moment he laid eyes on a clear, unpolluted, starry sky for the first time in his life. I doubt at five years old he was thinking about the “cosmic expanse” or how the stars were our “true ancestors.’’ Nevertheless, the stars seemed to naturally make him feel something powerful.
Real art will challenge you. But, overcoming the challenges and questions that real art poses is not a prerequisite to appreciating it.
Real art has layers to uncover. But, the presence of many layers should not overwhelm or distract you. I could look at the ocean every day and still find something new to enjoy. At the same time, I don’t look at the ocean and feel inundated by how much there is to appreciate.
Pseudo art may possess “deeper meaning” but it fails to make us feel anything without an understanding of that meaning. You’ve probably encountered pseudo art before: Think hyper intellectual, abstract, esoteric films, paintings or pieces of literature. The critics will say that you just don’t get the “meaning behind it.”
Real, powerful art provides a visceral kick of initial emotion and satisfies our inner storyteller that hunts for greater meaning. Real art will provide layers and layers of depth to uncover, leaving itself timeless. This is the case in plenty of impressive paintings, songs, sculptures — it could be anything.
Nike’s shoes are very visually appealing and comfortable; they make your eyes and your feet feel good. But if you choose to look deeper, the story of how Nike was founded is also very satisfying and interesting. Look further and you can appreciate the quality of Nike’s advertisements. Even a corporation can be artistic. There are plenty of layers of Apple to unravel.
By now, you might be thinking of Andy Warhol. How could a can of soup be meaningful? And how could a can of soup generate visceral, emotional appeal? Aside from Warhol’s use of pretty colors and symmetrical shapes, he provides that kick of emotion in his own way.
The purported lack of meaning in his art is the meaning; the medium is the message. If one looks at Warhol’s art and feels a pang of confusion, even anger — how could something so simple and boring be so expensive and famous? — then the art has done its job. I have a feeling that the experience of confusion and anger are exactly what Warhol hoped to produce.