Think you don’t understand art? Think again.

Written by Micaela Muldoon, Digital Initiatives Coordinator at The Art Gallery of Windsor

Remember in grade school how you would occasionally have to sit with people you didn’t hang out with? And it immediately became clear just how out of place you were? They were all laughing at some inside joke or talking about something that happened on the weekend — sorry, you wouldn’t get it; you had to be there. Awk-waaaard. Why did your best friend have to be sick that day? Why did your other best friend have a track meet at the same time? And where the heck was your other other best friend, anyway?

People tend not to want a repeat of that experience during adulthood, but for many, visiting an art gallery dredges up those old feelings. Galleries can be very isolating: they’re filled with silence and works of art that you’re convinced you don’t understand and people who you assume are smarter than you. Maybe in the outside world, you’re part of the majority who “don’t get it,” but in here you are definitely in the minority and it is u n c o m f o r t a b l e.

You probably think this is the part where I’m going to say “GOOD. You should be uncomfortable. It means you’re challenging yourself and putting your brain to use in a different way. You’re changing as a person, for the better.” But actually, that’s not what I’m going to say. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of other people using their own tastes in various media — visual art, music, film, literature, whatever — to measure my worth.

I have three university degrees (I promise I have a point). The first is a double-major B.A. in English Language, Literature, and Creative Writing & Communication, Media, and Film. The second is an M.A. in Creative Writing. The third is an M.A. in Folklore (long story). In spite of the countless hours I’ve spent taking diligent notes during lectures, reading the works of brilliant minds, and trying to write essays and a thesis half as merit-worthy as any of those, often times when I read something, I still don’t “get it.” But if there’s one concept that really helped me survive my post-secondary education, it is this: “The author is dead.”

Now, for anyone reading this and saying “death to what now?”, ‘death of the author’ is a critical theory that incorporates the audience’s perspective as integral to the understanding of a creative work. Essentially, this theory proposes that once someone publishes their work, thereby sending it out into the wide world, they have no say in how people should or will interpret it. It’s not as if the creator can be there to tell every single person who reads their work from now until the end of time if their perspective is right or wrong. And guess what? It never can be wrong. Each individual has a combination of upbringing, experiences, personality traits, etc. unlike anyone else’s in the world, and they will automatically bring all that into whatever they read. It’s because of this that no two people will look at the same piece of writing in the exact same way, but no one perspective is more or less valid than another. You may see things in a story or poem that even the writer might never have seen. That’s a good thing; it fleshes out all the facets of a work.

So what I’m saying is, why not apply that to art — or any other medium — for that matter? You don’t have to exert yourself looking for hidden meaning in an artwork to try to impress someone else; all you’re actually doing is creating anxiety for yourself about “getting it.” Let yourself see what you see, and value your own perspective. Because really, who is any other fellow Earth-dweller to tell you that your own lived experiences, your likes and dislikes, your self-expression, are wrong? You’re not wrong. You’re just you. And art can be whatever you make of it.

The Art Gallery of Windsor (AGW) is a non-profit public art gallery known for its cutting-edge contemporary art program and Canadian art collections.