Think you don’t understand art? Think again: a second perspective

Written by Stephen Nilsson, Senior Preparator at The Art Gallery of Windsor
Edited by Abbey Lee Hallett, Audience Engagement Coordinator at The Art Gallery of Windsor

Some time ago, I had a conversation with a patron at the AGW. Though it has been some time since the conversation took place, it is not one that I will soon forget.

Throughout our conversation, this patron and I covered several topics, including a discussion about the current state of Canadian contemporary art. Clearly, given our back-and-forth, this patron had a decent amount of experience discussing and engaging with art. Despite that experience, the concern of “not getting” the meaning of an exhibition continued to prod at him. Regardless of what show he was seeing, that tiny voice saying “what if I don’t get it?” had never gone away. As our conversation came to an end, we wondered: was the viewer’s perception of an artwork more important than understanding the actual artist’s intention for the work? Upon some consideration, I had some thoughts as to one — of many — possible answers to this question.

Art has always been created through collaboration. The idea that “true art” can only be made by a tormented artist locked in isolation, letting their creativity flow uncontrollably from their fingertips, is not the norm for many accomplished artists of today. Many modern artists employ skilled craftspeople to help realize their visions, much like the artists of days gone by. Andy Warhol had craftspeople working in his warehouse; at times, the only instance where Warhol’s hand would touch one of his works would be when he signed the work upon its completion. Even Leonardo da Vinci had a stable of assistants to help him with his creations. Further, many artists also create in a community-driven way, where their final product is realized in consultation with the community in which they work. Given that many artworks are created with countless people involved, why should we feel like it is wrong to interpret an artist’s work differently than the artist did? Maybe our different interpretation is speaking to an influence that a craftsperson, a consultant, or a community member had on the artwork.

Art galleries should aim to create a space that welcomes discussion and invites the viewer to experience the artist’s perspective, while also feeling safe to contribute their own perspectives — even if their perspectives are different than those of the original artist. Galleries need to be part of the conversation, and work with their community to create an environment where no one leaves feeling like they don’t “get it”.

Want a different perspective on this topic? Click here to read an earlier article written by our Digital Initiatives Coordinator, Micaela Muldoon!

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.