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The Art of Appreciating Art

By Elisha Carey


“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

-Thomas Merton


Recently I’ve found myself standing in front of some of the world’s most famous paintings. I’m currently on Erasmus in the Netherlands, which is home to some of the greatest paintings ever painted. Here you’ve got your Vermeers, your Rembrandts and of course your van Gogh’s. It’s an incredibly fortunate position to be in if you’re an art lover like myself. When it comes to the Mona-Lisa-level famous paintings, the ones that have transcended both time and culture, I find my reaction is always one of starstruck awe, like that exact moment in a concert when you realise the artist is actually a real person, or for me, like the time I went to a Jedward album signing in Wilton Shopping Centre when I was in 6th class and nearly fainted with excitement. Art is exciting. Personally, nothing beats getting to see, in person and for the first time, a painting you’ve studied and admired for a long time. In a way it’s familiar, you’ve seen it so many times before, but this time is just undeniably different. You are stood in front of what the artist once was, and in that moment, you’re somewhat connected to them. During that first moment, I like to imagine the artist arched over their painting, their hands carefully hovering above it, painstakingly applying each brushstroke to the canvas.


For me, and many others, art is just another way for us as humans to connect with each other. I couldn’t imagine life without it, but I know not everyone feels that way. I believe learning to appreciate art is a worthwhile endeavour, especially when travelling. Observing a country’s art can unlock a lot of its history and culture. In this article, I’m attempting to encourage everyone no matter how disinterested or unknowledgeable, to try art appreciation, even just once. Consuming art doesn’t have to be hard and boring. It’s not always being in a stuffy old gallery scrutinising portraits of historical figures you’ve never even heard of. Art can be fun and interactive and here’s the cool thing: you don’t even have to know anything about art to begin with to enjoy it! You just have to give it a chance.


I can appreciate that art isn’t always the easiest thing to consume. A couple of weekends ago, I went to a modern art festival in Rotterdam with some friends. It was really cool, and I greatly enjoyed the day, but I reckon the words “I don’t get it” passed through my lips about 1000 times. It can be hard when you feel like you’re the only person in the room lacking the intellect to appreciate or understand what’s before you. But if someone paints a black square on a canvas, I find it so difficult to derive any deeper meaning from that. It’s just…a black square against a white background. In this way, I think it’s a lot easier to start with the older stuff when you’re going about trying to forge an appreciation for art. At least if an artist paints an incredibly life-like pear you can say: “wow that actually does look a lot like a pear, fair play.”


And who am I to be trying to teach art appreciation? A massive fraud that’s who! Apart from taking art history in Leaving Cert, I haven’t so much as touched the topic in any sort of academic setting. Some of my friends are self-professed art snobs so I’ve had to get to grips with the jargon in order to survive arty conversations. My go to words are “conceptual”, “abstract” and “thought-provoking” because nobody really knows what they mean, and they make you sound more intelligent than you actually are. So, I’m essentially clueless, unable to tell a Giotto from a Caravaggio, but again, that’s the beauty of it. You don’t actually have to know anything to appreciate art-of course you don’t! You have eyes, don’t you? Like with anything, it’s just about figuring out what you’re into. This is likely to be a process of trial and error. When travelling it’s safest to go visit the gallery or art thing that the place is “known” for. For example, if you’re in Paris and head to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, keep an open mind (and open eyes!) Allow things to catch your attention! Once you’ve found something that catches your eye, spend a few minutes with it. Congratulations! You have now consumed art! It’s really that easy.  If you’re drawn to a particular type of art, research its artists and put a visit to a gallery housing them on the itinerary for your next trip. You’re now a fully-fledged art enthusiast! Go you!


And don’t confine yourself to galleries and paintings. Art is everywhere. If you’re budget conscious you can soak up street art for free just about anywhere these days. Right here in Cork, you’ve probably spotted Mad About Cork’s painted ESB electricity boxes, these quirky and colourful pieces are quite hard to miss and many offer the viewer a laugh, like Kevin O’Brien’s piece of Jack Gleeson who plays King Joffrey in Game of Thrones, that reads ‘Cork Born, King’s Landing Bred’.


Art tells stories. Some in more obvious ways than others. But all art is intrinsically human and never taking time to appreciate it is doing yourself an injustice. Anything can be art, from paintings and sculpture to poetry and even dance. With street art and performance and many galleries offering free or lower admission prices to students, consuming art has never been more accessible. You have no excuse! So, allow yourself to get lost in the art around you, you never know what you might find…