I mentioned embarrassment earlier. I think it is surprising how rarely the issue of the embarrassment inherent in engaging with art is addressed, especially in Britain where embarrassment might be said to be our national emotion. And it is peculiarly an issue with the visual arts. When we go to a concert all we have to do is close our eyes, or watch the conductor or orchestra, keep quiet and try not to make asses of ourselves by clapping at the end of a movement. We can let the music come to us, enter our ears and brains and allow it either to send us to sleep or to make a shape, a narrative, an emotional structure in our minds that delights, solaces, charms, frightens, seduces, enlivens or in any of a thousand other ways acts upon us and our thoughts and feelings. Although it seems today that if there is one thing going to a concert or play truly provokes in people it is a coughing fit. But that is a whole other kettle of wax. The point is that things are different when we look at works of art. When we go to a gallery there are other people moving and talking all around us and our time is, all things being equal, our own and not under the control of a conductor or director, we can choose to linger or pass by any individual work – choose: there is a frightening word.
There are so many unspoken dilemmas facing a gallery visitor. We arrive at an exhibition space that is displaying pieces by artists of whom we may or may not have heard. Often we are attending a show which exhibits works by names so illustrious and so, we are told, important, that they have already for hundreds of years been called Old Masters. Or they are Modern Masters, geniuses, icons, cultural heroes… they are great, or scandalous, or notorious or revered.They are intimidating.
Are we supposed to know facts about the artists and their works? Are we supposed to talk? Shall we be entirely silent and slowly stand and stare at works without comment and without revealing what we feel or shall we occasionally dare to say that we like this expression, or that shape, or those colours? Do we whisper to our companions, or do we imitate that awful show-off over there who is talking so knowledgeably and loudly about morbidezza, sfumato and golden sections? And isn’t it actually snobbish of us to disapprove of him, he is obviously enjoying himself and what is wrong with him imparting his enthusiasm and knowledge to his companion? Why should we assume he is showing off, doesn’t that assumption reveal nothing but our own self-conscious insecurity? Oh dear. It’s all so complicated. Aren’t we just striking a pose too, the pose of one who refuses to listen to any nonsense about art history, or pay any attention to the tradition or biographical background of the works before us. In fact we are going to ignore the so-called masterpiece in front of us and stylishly prefer the lesser known work next to it, just to show how original we are and how unswayed by reputations.
Even if we avoid all those contortions we still have to stand before art works that might have us entranced, or confused or perplexed, or shocked or bored or thrilled or hungry for more while at the same time knowing that there are others clamouring to see them as well, so we mustn’t hog the space directly in front, yet we are conscious too that we don’t know how far away to stand – should we step right back and risk other people getting in the way? On the other hand if we go too close are we pretentiously implying a connoisseur’s expertise in brushwork and technique? Oh dear, all I want to do is engage with the piece sincerely, with no pre-conceptions or prejudices but my own manners, fears and anxieties and my awareness of myself and of others, all obtrude. There’s always someone blocking my clear view of an artwork and that someone turns out to be myself.
All this self-consciousness. It sometimes seems that the only safe way to go round an exhibition is entirely on one’s own, otherwise we’re in terrible fear of looking like a show-off, or an ignoramus, or affected or blasé or pretentious or philistine or something equally shaming and dreadful. We yearn to be open, to learn, to be provoked, to engage honestly, simply and truthfully with a work, but to do so we must leave our self-aware, social, verbal and public selves behind. But how hard that is when we are in such a public sphere. The very fact of our being in a populous gathering automatically activates all those tribal status, power and perception regions of our brain that are death to plain, honest, naked encounters with art.