Why is Art So Confusing?

by | Jan 31, 2012 | Blog | 4 comments

Ever been to a museum or art gallery and can’t figure out why a painting is on exhibit? It may not look finished, make sense, feel attractive, or give any idea of its meaning. I recently received an email from a New York City artist asking for help in understanding a painting by the surrealist Yves Tanguy (pictured below) that he saw in the Museum of Modern Art, titled “He Did What He Wanted”, painted in1927. In his email the artist said he tried to figure it out, knew it was surreal, but still felt lost. Even the wisest of us can feel a bit miffed while viewing an art exhibition. Here are some ideas I have on this topic:

Art comes in a wide variety
Our world is diverse. There are many different types and styles of paintings, as well as people, each of us with a different perspective, different ways of viewing and creating art. So it follows that there will always be some art we prefer, others we don’t, and some that we will not comprehend, and may not care to either. If you don’t understand it, or like it, just move on until you find one that interests you.

Being on display does not always designate quality
Museums are educational institutions. They collect art for a wide variety of reasons, but in general try to purchase works that had an impact in the way we now view art history. Viewing an artwork on display in a museum, with our contemporary eyes, may not give us any connection unless we know about that artist or artwork, or have donned a pair of headphones. Even if this artwork is created by a designated “master”, this may not be their best work. That is because great masters like all artists, created a wide variety of  works, and some may be great while others are lukewarm. Museums may only be able to purchase a lesser quality work by a master due to finances or market availability. Keep in mind that just because a work of art is in a museum it may not be of high quality, and it may not speak to us.

If the work doesn’t communicate anything to you, then let it go and move on to another image that does. Its more fun to keep looking for work that moves us then spend time with ones that don’t. When I go to a museum I give myself one and a half hours max. After that I no longer have the viewing attention. In that time I wander around in search of one painting that will really move me. Once I find that one work I will stand in front of it for long periods of time to soak it in. What I am soaking in is not always intellectual or analyzed, but more emotional or felt. I go to a museum for that experience, not to see if I can understand all the works that are on display. Sometimes I will go to a certain exhibit to see what the curator had in mind – try to figure out what the educational message is from the show as a whole. But in general I like to view art for the “high”, the emotional and spiritual impact I can get. This, then, gives me motivation to keep painting, to see that art does and continues to have value to the human spirit.

About Ives Tanguy
As I first mentioned, in the email that inspired this article was a painting by Ives Tanguy. Here is a link to read more about him.

He is very well known as one of the surrealist masters. I am not drawn to this particular work of his, however, I am aware that paintings look very different in person then from a photograph. The full impact of a work of art comes from all the factors, some of which are missing when the work transfers from paint to photograph: factors such as size, surface texture and sheen, quality of the pigment and color refracted by light, handling of the paint, and the artists “signature” in the brushstrokes. So I will keep from making any judgments until my next trip to New York.

Surrealism is an important movement in art history, and is still a major influence in contemporary work. Here is a link to read more about surrealism:

During the time when surrealism was popular to a specific group of artists, there were other parallel movements in the culture such as the early development of contemporary psychology. Surrealism is based on our collective unconscious, so images, forms, shapes and colors are utilized to create a dream-like state in the viewer, and to evoke personal connections. This was a big deviation from other works of that time, that strove to create a very specific place, time and snapshot of reality. This particular work by Tanguy presents a grouping of forms (geometric and “real”) in a landscape that will mean different things to each of us. As Carl Jung discovered, there are certain forms that mean the same thing to us, thus forming our collective, which is better stated in his books on the collective unconscious. When we look at historic works with contemporary eyes we may not find anything of interest. I do believe, though, that a really great work of art will connect to our human spirit in some way throughout time.

Ives Tanguy, “He Did What He Wanted”, 1927

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  1. lad

    You are quite right about real, and reproduced -duced artwork. I was a little dismayed looking at the modern section at the MET – the Bonnards, Picassos, Miros…some seemed to be unevenly varnished, some scraped and distressed canvas areas. Not so bright, tight and glossy as the pictures in books!

  2. Nancy Reyner

    Dear Cynthia,
    This is the true challenge for all artists – to create and enjoy the work you want without paying attention to other's comments and/or preferences. Don't show your work or share your opinions with those who have a very different preference range then you.

  3. Cynthia

    I totally can relate to what this person is explaining. I also have trouble being surrounded by people who ridicule art. My grandfather was an artist as we're several of my siblings. I married into a family of engineers. They seem to think if you can't figure out what it is or what it is saying then it isn't art. They even call some of the art that I am intrigued by sick. How does one deal with this. My artwork has been stifled for years do to this judgement.

  4. Alexandra

    Wow. Tanguy's work is wonderful. I love the geometric visibility.This art piece would make a great conversational piece as it is open to many interpretations.


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Nancy Reyner is a professional fine-art painter with over 30 years experience using a variety of mediums including oil, acrylic, watercolor and mixed media. She has appeared on television for HGTV’s “That’s Clever,” and authored several best-selling painting books with F&W Media. She currently lives in Santa Fe, NM. Read more.
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