The committee was trying to select a statue for the entry of the new building on campus. Part of the appropriation and the private funding for the campus building allowed a small amount of money for art, and the committee wanted to select something that would be appropriate for a public building used by many people who understand art and some who don't.
The committee included artists along with those of us who feel that we probably should know more about art. We should at least know how to talk about it. One member of the committee said what we have all probably thought at one time or another. The statement was probably in the minds of the non-artists who were perhaps a bit timid about evaluating art with artists present: "I don't know much about art but I know what I like."Answering the next question is the hard part. "You have said that you know what you like. If this is something you like, tell me why you like it?"
The question pushes us to describe what we like about a particular work of art and sometimes results in vague statements like "it seems restful. It speaks to me. Well, it's pretty. Maybe nobody will complain about this one. What is it supposed to be anyway?"
The question could also push us to learn to be more articulate when talking about art.
What we have here is evidence that not all of us know enough about art to talk intelligently about something we like. We admitted this when we said, "I don't know much about art but . . ."
Perhaps before jumping to some informed or uninformed aesthetic judgment about art there are some questions that even those of us who don't speak the language of the artist can ask. At least we can ask questions of the art from three different perspectives.
We can first ask about the sensory properties. What do we see (color, proportions, shape, texture)? This is a start but is only a fifth of the first set of questions. What do we hear? Is the art loud, soft, shrill, fast, low or high? It takes a bit of thinking to apply these aural properties to visual arts, but the properties are there along with characteristics that have an aroma, a feel and even a taste.
The second set of questions could be about the formal properties of the art. Trying to avoid the jargon of the art critic, perhaps we would look for a theme or dominant characteristic. The theme could be a shape, a color, a texture or an image. We could notice if the theme is repeated in a variety of ways or if it is balanced in different parts of the work. Does the work show some evolution of this theme or some hierarchy with elements that are more dominant than others?
If we can get this far, the third step is a bit more transparent. The questions are about expressive properties. The art will represent something or will evoke some kind of image from our personal experience. We may discover moods. We may find tension, relaxation or conflict. We may also discover ideas like courage, equality, wisdom or nobility. It may be that we need to prepare ourselves for some negative ideas in good art. We could discover hate, grief, envy or cruelty.
What we should have recognized at this point is that the art invites us to experience something. It isn't a story or a picture of something. It is an invitation to mingle our individual experience with the experience of the artist and his or her work.
Those of us who can get this far may be expert enough to go the next step with the artist and ask about the technical properties of the art. It may be, however, that judgments can be made by those of us with limited experience without knowing how something is made.
It is the nature of art that each is allowed an opinion and an individual experience. We can each know what we like. It may even help us to explain why we like it if we are willing to ask ourselves about the sensory, formal and expressive properties.
At least we will view art as an experience. We may even be able to explain why we like the art.- Roger G. Baker is associate professor of English/education at Snow College. Comments or questions about "Learning Matters" may be addressed to him at the English Department, Snow College, Ephraim, UT 84627.