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What you see in art

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By Kerry Tinga

IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER ‘Summer Exhibition’ at the Royal Academy of Arts in London

IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER ‘Summer Exhibition’ at the Royal Academy of Arts in London

Hanging above Piccadilly, Bond, and Regent Street are exciting and eyecatching prints and flags in celebration of the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. It was 250 years ago that the Royal Academy was founded in order to promote teaching and appreciation of what was then contemporary art, recognized as an important part of the culture of a society.

Throughout the years, the Royal Academy has upheld that objective. Although they have major exhibitions of prominent artists like any other museum, every year they have the “Summer Exhibition” that is open for all artists to submit works to (known or unknown, famous or under the radar) and free for the public to enjoy. It has been held annually without exception and, this year, the “250th Summer Exhibition,” was advertised as the “biggest, brightest, and most colorful ‘Summer Exhibition’ yet.”2

Walking through the rooms, I saw a great deal of paintings and sculptures, architecture plans and models, vases and drawings, videos and other forms of art that I could not properly describe. There were works by artists I had heard of, like Anish Kapoor and David Hockney, as well as pieces by artists who were completely unfamiliar but whose works impressed me. The walls were painted bright colors and there were paintings that hung so high they were almost at the ceiling. My eyes were bombarded with a hundred and one things to look at in every room I entered, all over the walls and the floor, and I loved it.

I have written numerous times about museums and art exhibits, of art and artists in general, something I enjoy that I know not everybody does. Sometimes, I would drag a friend to a Picasso or a Baldessari exhibit in London and they would come along but reluctantly. While most appreciate the skill and beauty in Picasso’s Guernica or The Weeping Woman, not everybody feels that they need to pay to stare at these works sitting or standing. Some will go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, often making a remark about how they are a bit disappointed with its size given the hype that surrounds it, and fail to look at the thousands of other works on display, from antiquity to decorative arts, or even other paintings, even the ones lesser known. Like any hobby or interest, I understand that the visual arts are just not for everyone. I also believe, however, that it is because the way most people view museums and art exhibitions is slightly flawed. It should not be about just going somewhere because you know the name of the painting or the name of the artist since you heard or read somewhere that it is the sort of thing you are supposed to know and appreciate. It should be about appreciating it because the actual work itself has made you feel a certain way, or even that you just like the way that it looks. Someone does not need to stare at a work and disect or decipher what it is supposed to mean to like it, all they need to do is like it.

The Royal Academy “Summer Exhibition” is a lot about giving artists the opportunity to showcase their works, a thousand or so pieces selected from thousands of applications with many up-and-coming artists having the opportunity to have their work part of a major exhibition. But it is also a lot about getting the public interested in art. Without a public to be interested in and appreciate the art, it would not matter whether or not an artist’s work was selected. The solution to the problem of having an uninterested public is to make going to the Exhibition a visceral experience in and of itself.

On one’s way to the Royal Academy in Burlington House on Piccadilly there are the flags showing the prints of the art works, already part of the experience that helps bring art to the public and outside the walls of the museum. A large sculpture by Anish Kapoor welcomes people at the courtyard before they even enter the building. Once inside they will see hundreds of works and there is bound to be at least one, though most likely much more than one, that speaks to them the way good art is meant to speak to its audience. The bright yellow colors of one of the rooms made the paintings on the walls stand out, instead of the usual boring white walls that often make a room feel cold and unwelcoming. There was a “room of humor” in a newly opened Gallery of the Academy that featured odd prints created by Shirgley whose work I could not confess to completely understand but that I still enjoyed.

The art of every generation is influenced by, but always different from the ones before it, constantly evolving with the times. Yet the way art is exhibited is still very traditional.

No wonder many people find little interest in going to an art gallery or museum during their free time. If art is a reflection, even evidence, of the zeitgeist of the years then the work of our time, especially with the rise of new mediums in a post-Internet age, shows that art ought to be exhibited in a more engaging way. Even something like brightly colored walls (or even darker tones if the work showcased calls for it) changes the mood in a room drastically and makes those who enter interested in what is on display. The works are not all hung in a row such that the museum goers end up making an informal line around the room to look at each one, but all around that everybody ends up turning and nodding their heads to see everything. Even in other museums that show older works I find the most enjoyable ones are the museums that have the work put in context, beside furniture of the same time period and such, not just hanging on a blank white room.

The arts should not be unwelcoming but engaging and open, not a snobby hobby but one for everybody to be at least a little bit interested in. Art is what a society’s culture is, and we are nothing without our culture. While most people understand the importance of art to be displayed, there needs to be an audience willing to view it, and there will not be if the art’s bleak surroundings stifle its expression.

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