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'No title, gouache no. 6.653' by Fons Heijnsbroek, The Netherlands

Picture by: Fons Heijnsbroek | flickr

(Un)Open art. Why is modern art so intimidating?

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Amsterdam. Loud electronic music. Reflections of light on concrete walls. It caught my attention while I was walking down the street toward Dam Square. I felt immediately fascinated by these unusual spaces among bars, clubs, and tourist places. It looked totally out of order and different.

When I looked more carefully, I noticed a small piece of paper explaining there was an opening for a new art exhibition. I was curious about the event, but when I entered the space, I instantly felt anxious. Even though there were some paintings and NFTs on the walls, there was no one I could ask about the exhibition. No information, no people, no clues.

I wasn’t sure if I was welcome, so I left and came back half an hour later. This time I noticed some people wandering around and felt more encouraged to join. I found out it was a grassroots initiative created by a few independent artists who organised the event on their own. It was a very vibrant and stylish exhibition that, in theory, spread a philosophy of openness and availability of art.

After spending some time in the space, one of the artists told me the main idea of the event was to allow everyone to experience art without requiring any fee. To make art truly independent and welcoming. But when I left I couldn’t help but wonder: is this kind of art environment truly welcoming? Most of the people at the exhibition clearly knew each other. It was a very hermetic situation; without proper ads or information displays, it was hard to be considered welcoming from the outside.

Even for me – a person interested in the art sphere and the mechanism of its work – this experience felt as if I didn’t belong. So what is the main aim of such events? Why does independence so often mean exclusiveness? And what can be done to prevent modern art from being so intimidating for the masses?

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'Hope, Love and Good Fortune' by Rudy Uytenhaak and Willem Oorebeek, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Picture by: Rob Oo | flickr

Of course, there are different types of art events that work for various groups of visitors. An independent gallery or squat doesn’t have the same availability or mission as a public museum which is much more adapted to advertising events and educating people about art.

But if the goal of an independent exhibition is to encourage and open people up to totally new experiences, to get outside the box and break the typical display mechanisms provided by conventional museums, shouldn’t it be more welcoming from the get-go?

The event I found in Amsterdam is an example of a small community that has done a good job in terms of performance. But as a person who is not related to Amsterdam’s artistic underground, I experienced a deep lack of understanding of what was going on all around me.

There were no plaques informing about the pieces, no word from the curator or artists, and no event brochure. I wasn’t even sure which of the objects were art, and which were the common space equipment. Maybe this particular event hasn’t chased the goal of being understandable for everyone, maybe feeling lost among strange objects was intentional. But if so, why did they describe themselves as open and welcoming?

There is of course an easy explanation to this – it is not always vital for art to be described. Sometimes it’s better to be confronted by something we don’t get to see what kind of emotion, association, or reflection it evokes.

Modern art is often about the pure experience and the resignation from imposing one perception of something. But even such a concept needs some support if it’s supposed to be an open and welcoming reception for anyone. Maybe resignation from imposing the reception does not have to be synonymous with a complete abandonment of support for the education of art?

Anytime I attend a well-organised exhibition, where the content is clear with a lot of additional information about the essential art background, I ask myself if there is one specific way to understand art. That doubt clears out for me modern art’s intimidation tendency.

When I went to the collection of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, I tried out a little experiment. First, I was observing and interpreting the artworks by myself, trying to understand the feelings and senses that the artist has put me into. Afterward, I read the descriptions and interpretations proposed by the curators.

This method developed my personal point of view. The hints left from the organisers helped me not to get completely lost and sometimes even expanded my perception. But it wasn’t imposing one particular narrative. It was a needed base for my own interpretation.

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  • Metz / Mai 2011, displayed at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France.

    Picture by: xkidx | flickr

  • To experience art this way, it is necessary not to feel right or wrong as an observer. The feeling of misunderstanding art usually evolves from a lack of curated education. But if art is supposed to be free, should education truly play a crucial role in enjoying it?

    The more I think about it, the more sure I am that this is not about pure knowledge – especially today, when everyone has access to the encyclopaedia in their pockets. It is more about curiosity and feeling entitled to create a personal reflection. Trying to understand art requires effort, but it shouldn’t be so deterring.

    And if experiencing art is mainly about curiosity, then maybe the best way for modern art institutions – to be more open towards people – would be to focus on encouragement and finding ways to catch people’s attention. The bigger the art community gets, the greater chances for the development and growth of modern culture there are.

    That’s why I think art events can become a powerful tool to involve more people, not only in art, but also into developing independent critical thinking – which is so important and needed nowadays.

    About the author:

    Maria Chernova

    Born in 2005 in Ukraine, Maria studies in Odessa. She is interested in the architectural field and is currently studying at Breda University of applied sciences on the program Built environment. For Harbingers’ Magazine, she writes about the rebuilding of Ukraine.

    I truly believe that the art world can be attractive and welcoming. Art is a very powerful instrument which can increase levels of awareness in society, open the minds of people to new experiences, and show them the benefit of diversity and different points of view. From this perspective modern art is not about some sophisticated, pretentious events, but about creating a chance for new interactions between people.

    The World Cup is now taking place in Qatar. Millions of people are watching matches, cheering on their teams, and discussing the competitions. Football is a way for people to connect differently from everyday routines. Is it too naive to think that art can do it as well?

    visual arts