Why people don’t get it.
by Nic Olson
Four years ago when I was newly twenty and wandering around the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art) on a Wednesday (the only free) night, I never would have guessed I would be one day writing an editorial for a contemporary art magazine. At that time I would take in any free event I could, even pretending to be a med student to get into wine and cheese events for newly graduated doctors. I walked around the Museum, staring at puppets and massive formations of wool and plaster and paper and metal, and I accepted the production and the process, all the while thinking in my head, “I don’t really get it.” And it’s true, I didn’t get it.
Even then I knew people who made art; my girlfriend at the time painted abstract and I supported her in the selfish way a 21-year-old boyfriend supports something he doesn’t understand. I was used to reading depressing non-fiction books about the state of humanity; I could only really conceptualize straight-forward, simple, concrete ideas. Facts, not interpretation.
Being in Montreal I often met people who willingly but begrudgingly worked as bartenders and grocery attendants while their peers from back home were child-rearing and flipping starter-homes. Societal norms state that people working these jobs aren’t contributing to society because they aren’t contributing to the economy, and thus in many ways, wasting their lives.
“Yeah, one day I’ll get a real job,” is a phrase you’ll often hear from self-deprecating artists when talking with their more financially advanced friends. According to the norms of the world of creation, these people are working shitty jobs to have money to attempt the visualization—the realization—of some vague subconscious dream, of the tip of some idea that they don’t even quite understand, of a new feeling they can’t express any other way.
There exists a new IT-based world of maximizing human efficiency and output. It benevolently wants us to waste absolutely no time on the mundane tasks with which our parents’ lives were filled, therefore improving our lives. New apps that are changing the ways we date, travel, sleep, are the foremost leaders in this push to free humans from the reality of being human, and to bask in all the free time we’ve gained. We praise the brilliance of our new tech-soaked free-market—an evolution of every capitalist generation’s attempt at increasing the productivity of the commodity that is human labour and thus, increasing capital. When productivity and value is based on output and dollar figures, soon art and creation are considered sluggish, lazy, and slow. And that’s the point when people don’t get it.
Simply put, contemporary art is difficult for people to understand because art isn’t trying to sell something. The ‘art’ that people consume daily is limited to drab bus advertisements for cellphone companies, ten-second internet videos hoping to go viral, or kooky TV ads for razors. Ads make you feel hungry, inadequate, anxious and therefore, sell you something. Art forces you to sit down to decide what you feel, which always ends up being more significant than the pedestrian emotions stirred up by an ad. Art may portray ideas, even attempt to sway peoples’ opinions, but it isn’t selling a product besides itself. It is a series of emotions and ideas put together with paint and paper, mud and wire, mouse clicks and colour changes, foot movements and choreography, words and phrases.
What I now realize, what I didn’t realize when I was walking around the Museum in Montreal, is that it’s not supposed to be easy. You’re not being sold something, so you don’t instantly, instinctively know what you’re consuming. Getting it may mean taking thirty seconds to sit and stare at it, to actually think about its colours and composition and lighting and materials, to consider something besides yourself and your walk to your car, something besides the digital billboard flashing in your face. It may mean to reread, re-watch, grab a seat and continue to look at all the corners of a canvas until you feel an emotion, when you feel that emotion, whatever it is, then you may get it.
But then again, maybe not.