How to Enjoy Art … in conversation with Ben Street
by The Dyás Admin·
“Everyone is equal in front of an artwork”
This week I had the pleasure of talking to Ben Street, author of How to Enjoy Art - a guide to accessing art and feeling comfortable in a sometimes intimidating culture.
What got you interested in thinking about how everyone can enjoy art? And why do you believe it's important that they do?
Ben: I have worked as a teacher and museum educator for a long time, starting in the states in New York and then working in London. I have worked with a wide range of audiences from very young children, older people, students, trainee teachers to the general public. Through my experiences I have met a lot of people that for whatever reason don’t feel that art is for them or they don’t feel like they can get something from it, so the book comes from that experience. I wanted to do a book that wasn’t just about historical information because I think that there is a difference between that and standing in front of a picture and engaging with it on a personal level, and I wanted to focus on this because there are a lot of books and tv shows that already focus on the historical contexts of works of art, and it is important but it’s not everything.
Art can sometimes feel intimidating and stressful and I think we have all experienced being overwhelmed by a room in a museum. In your book “How to enjoy art” you give some very useful “tips” to encourage people to engage with works of art, what are some of the best ones to help the causally interested get into art?
Ben: I still feel intimidated by going to galleries as well. Commercial galleries, especially, are meant to be intimidating. Going to any museum is overwhelming and it is impossible to see everything and enjoy that experience. So you have to, right at the beginning, say to yourself that you are not going to see everything but you are not going to stress about that. The important thing to remember in a museum is to have 1, 2 or 3 encounters or really good experiences. And to achieve this you have to stop in front of something, you have to spend your time, you can read stuff but you also have to work. It's a bit like reading a book, the book isn’t going to read itself for you, you have to do the work, it’s not hard but you still have to do it. The best way to get a good experience out of everything is to be active, ask questions, get involved and think about it. Bring your perspective! The worst experience is being passive.
But how do you become active as a viewer of art? The way you become active is by trusting yourself. Even for very famous artworks, the last word hasn't been said. And whoever you are, you can be active in the process. It doesn’t matter whether you know anything about art. The important thing is that every artwork needs a viewer and a viewer can be anyone. After all, a song isn’t a song unless someone listens to it, and a book isn’t a book unless somebody reads it. Pop music is a good example because everyone is okay with expressing if they like or don’t and that is also the point of art, any art. The whole point is to bring your experience to the table. So even though sometimes artworks can be intimidating because they are really old, you have to think I am here and I matter in this experience. Every art experience is personal.
Do you think people that are part of the art world should acknowledge that most of their audience probably won't be artists or in the art world? Should they try to help their audience engage with their art accordingly?
Ben Street: I think this is something not everyone in the museum world understands. There are ways to do it, anyone can go to a gallery and get something out of it, but they can’t because they feel like they can’t. I understand that sometimes it's the architecture of the museum or the feeling of it, or the fact that they feel like it’s not their culture. All of that is valid, so you have to think about ways to encourage people to feel confident as they look at and enjoy art. Learning about the history and the context of an art piece is really important but it’s not the first thing. When it is, people might feel like they don't have breathing space, and it doesn’t allow them to think for themselves.
Also, the phrase “art world” is quite complicated because there are different art worlds. There's the museum world, which is non-profit, and the gallery world which is for-profit. And then there is the secondary market. They each have different relationships with their audiences. The commercial galleries don’t have to engage with the public at all, because they are shops that sell stuff. When I go in there I do feel intimidated by it but it doesn’t matter, because I would also be intimidated going to a store like Gucci. Museums, on the other hand, are public so they have to think a bit more carefully about how they communicate with the public. It's important that they realise that there aren't a lot of facts that people have to know to engage with the artwork. They're good to have but what's important is that people feel connected to the artwork, that they create a relationship to it. The other stuff is gravy.
I do think that getting people to connect with art is a priority for museums but they don’t always think about the different ways that people can approach artworks. That said, all museums have different ways of communicating with their public, and even across the UK different museums have radically different approaches.
Art tends to be seen as only for the most privileged, and it seems like that perception is as old as art itself. Why is that? And, how do we get people to stop seeing art as something exclusively for the elite?
Ben Street: Yes, I think that does happen but I don’t think it has happened across history. I think there are times in European history where art was part of everyone’s lives, particularly in a religious context during the medieval period. But I think that perception does exist and art can be associated with wealth and certain sorts of education, but I also think that everybody has a relationship with art - they just don’t realise it's art. People have relationships with Marvel movies and those are art, with pop music, fashion, and so on. Those are all art relationships. And these things are not necessities, but they do give your life meaning and value which is what art is. I think if we recognise artworks as part of that, that makes our lives interesting and makes us think about our lives, our relationships, and our families.
So, I think that the elite association doesn't come from the artworks, instead it comes from the way they are presented to us. Artworks can’t be reproduced a million times like music, or read a million times like books. You can’t reproduce the Mona Lisa, there is just one. So obviously it has to be looked after, it has to be in a building that protects it and that building is probably going to look a little bit like a castle (plus its such a special place to begin with) and that's always going to be intimidating. The only way around that is reproduction, but most artworks are 3-dimensional objects in a way that a book is not.
That said, while there are a lot of barriers in the way of people getting into art, a lot of them are mental barriers and you can get past them by recognizing that the people that make art and the people who talk about it are just people like you and me. If we look at The National Gallery, all those Renaissance paintings were made by scholars, historians, etc. They were brilliant, but they were also fundamentally ordinary people who were just very good at what they did. Going back to basics and realising that artists are just ordinary people that are brilliant at painting or making art helps you, I think, to get over any intimidation and see the art for what it really is.
As you mention in your book, art shouldn’t be solved. But why do you think we feel insecure when we leave the art piece not only “unsolved” but with more questions than when we started?
Ben Street: We don’t have an agreed-upon definition of what art is and I don’t understand why we need one. I like that I can’t fully understand it. I like it because it makes me curious. There are some times when I see art that I don’t like, but that’s fine. And an artist becomes successful not necessarily because they are the best artists but for a lot of different reasons, like people think it’s particularly contemporary, or their work appeals differently. But it doesn't matter if you see something you don’t like because there is lot’s of art, so you don’t have to think about it. You can do to look at something else.
I think that's why we sometimes feel the pressure of “solving the puzzle” of the art piece we're looking at. We feel the need to understand it to be able to be part of it, but in reality that doesn't really matter.
I have met a lot of people that said to me but I just want to get the definitive answer and I have said to them, well you are in the wrong game. I often see people getting annoyed at art but they are asking the wrong questions, asking questions that you can’t possibly answer and this where the frustration comes from. There is not going to be one artwork that everyone is going to agree on, not everything is for everyone and that is fine.
The question of what is the “true” value of art can have multiple answers, but what does it mean to you as an art expert?
Ben Street: The value of any artwork is decided in the interaction between the artwork and the person looking at it. Value is also a heavy word to use because there is financial value, economic value, and son on, and that varies with time. Some very famous artworks have a cultural value.
But when it comes to the paintings that I have got the chance to have a good encounter with, their value is incalculable for me. It's like the value of a song, I couldn’t put a value on it because it has affected me in such a profound way. Besides, different people can have different experiences with the same artworks.
What do you believe is the artist's role when it comes to communicating with the public?
Ben Street: I don’t think artists have a responsibility to the public, because the public is such a diverse idea. I think everyone that makes art thinks about the idea of communicating with somebody else. But because you made something that will be looked at by somebody else, you can’t control what they are going to say even if you want to communicate something.
If you wanted to communicate something that you want everybody to understand you would write it. But if I wanted to communicate something a little bit complicated or ambiguous, I would use visual art. If we are attentive to the physical part of the art we can start to get under the skin and understand what it is or what it means.
I like the way you described looking at art as a four-person conversation between the artist, you, the painting, and the character or element in the painting. Do you think the fact that art has different meanings depending on who looks at it is reflected in the artist's work?
Ben Street: The moment you show a piece of art to somebody else, when you put it out there, that is the moment when it comes to life. Anyone that makes anything would say that there is a moment when you are in your studio and you have made this perfect thing but you can’t keep it to yourself. You have to release it to the world, so when you're making it you're thinking about how it is going to be seen but you can’t control it.
You see artists get intimidated or nervous when their gallery show opens. But at the same time, they don’t make art just for themselves, they make it to get it out there and communicate with other people.
How to enjoy art is available online or at your local bookstore
Words by: Nuria Revuelta