Art that's meant to be understood

Published on 2024-01-17

Yesterday after I finished lunch I started walking to class. My class didn't start for another hour but it was getting pretty loud in the cafeteria and I had nowhere else to go.

When I made it to the space outside my lecture hall I still had 30 minutes or so and there really wasn't any space available to sit down. Every table was stacked with like, two people sitting equidistant from each other and the edges of the table, so sitting down with them would have been kind of weird. I didn't really know where to go, so I just kept walking.

I hadn't explored that floor much in my three years at university. This was the first time I ever had a lecture in this particular place; before, I'd only ever gone there for final exams, which get scheduled in whatever lecture hall is available at the right time.

In one of the hallways, there was a display with four related works of art. Each one had a print of an old (80s or 90s) photo of a child, whom I presumed to be the artist as a kid. The photos were encased in these larger, portrait, rectangular blocks that had words written all over them. The words were mostly virtues. Things like, "patience," "good," "happy." Some were more abstract, like "wait."

I don't really have anything to say about this display. I think that's... okay. I don't think it's a problem on its own, but I do think it tells a story--one that's been bothering me a lot.

Almost all of the paintings on my campus come with artist statements that very explicitly break down what they're supposed to communicate to you. It's kind of funny, actually. I'll see what kind of looks like a cool painting, and then I'll go to read the artist statement and it'll be something like "This painting depicts a heart because love is Good. Love is a Good Thing. The University of British Columbia reaffirms its commitment to love." And having read that I usually lose interest.

The art that gets exhibited on the walls of my university is... non-threatening. When it exhibits artwork from someone of a "threatening" demographic (say, queer and Indigenous people, as it often does, for what its worth), it's often purely technical in nature, saying, at best: "marginalized people are smart enough to make paintings too!"

I think it's okay for art to not have some "deep meaning." It's fine for art to be a pure demonstration of technical prowess. For what it's worth, I do enjoy looking at the art in my university, usually. Lots of it is very visually interesting. What bothers me, though, is this overwhelming sense that this art I'm surrounded by is selected for. It's chosen because it serves effectively as two-dimensionalized representations of my university's two-dimensional ideals. Diversity, ecological justice, inclusivity, integrity, love: things the institution pastes on its website while continuing to invest in companies stalling the energy transition, developing military weapons for apartheid states and brutalizing Indigenous people for the great crime of standing up for their treaty-enshrined rights.

The D. Ross Fitzpatrick Great Hall is a large, open space on my campus named after the founder and CEO of an oil and gas exploration company. 20 or 30 feet above the floor, a massive square painting, at least the length of a car, hangs above you as you study. It depicts a tropical rainforest filled with animals, hyperrealistic, except that they all have human eyes, gazing towards the viewer. The artist statement explains they made the choice to make the animals seem more human, in hopes that it'd help us better connect with the natural world being depicted. This fits squarely into my university's stated goals concerning environmental justice.

The painting is beautiful--very technically well done. It's also very disturbing to look at.

The animals don't look happy. Depicted against the white, clinical walls of my campus, I get the overwhelming sense that the painting is a prison, that the animals are looking at me pleadingly, from a natural environment that may not exist in the immanent future.

Others have told me they don't feel they're being pleaded with, but rather judged.

If you've been following my gemlog closely, you may have read this post last week:


In it, I describe a story about a professor of literature in a dead language. Recently, I started re-reading If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino, and the story is in fact in there!

If on a winter's night a traveler is a book about you, searching for a book, and so it jumps between segments of "books" you've found and the story of you actually searching for the book. I thought the story I was remembering was one of the "books," but in fact it was a part of the interleaved narrative about you searching for books.

I was right about some of the details: Cimmeria existed between WWI and WWII and was absorbed afterwards by the Cimbrian People's Republic (so, I was close I guess?). The atmosphere wasn't as I remembered it, though. It felt moreso like the professor's story was being played for laughs. It was still good, though. The story has a lot to say about how we interact with books.

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