Response to the chapter “Understanding Visual Culture” in Approaches to Understanding Visual Culture by M. Barnard (1/10):

I appreciate the way this book begins by stating in chapter 1 that people interpret the world around them differently and that isn’t necessarily “wrong.”  When it comes to trying to understand visual culture, it seems that the same holds true – people find different ways of going about trying to understand what they are seeing.  I also appreciate this book breaking down different ways of trying to understand and interpret things, but at this point, I am getting the feeling that the author is trying to set the book up to say one way is better than the other in certain circumstances.  If that is what the author is trying to say, then I think I’d be really cautious in following it 100%.

For example, take the part where the author discusses how people in the past tried to mimic natural science by finding facts in social science – he seems to make this out as being bad and a failure.  While I agree that it is nearly impossible to find facts in social sciences – such as trying to come up with some formula about how artists draw hands and ears, I think it is still worth exploring… simply for the realization that one can argue it’s not a fact in this case.

This brings me to Tuesday’s reading (1/15) on “Defining the Issues: An Overview” from Basic Issues in Aesthetics by M. Eaton.  Many times I’ve found myself walking around modern art museums completely stunned and confused as to why certain pieces of art are displayed.  Most notable and still confusing to me are the large paintings that look like a child picked up a bunch of paint and splashed it all over the canvas.  Or those “elephant paintings” where it’s supposed to look like an elephant painted it with their trunk.  I mean, really?  Who said this work of art is “good” and what did they base it on?  I always think it would be interesting to throw some paint on a canvas myself and see what that same person thinks of it.  I’d love to sit back and listen to people’s explanation and understanding of the painting just to come back and say “no, that’s not why I threw that splash there… I threw it there because that’s where it landed when I flung the paint off the brush.”

In class last Thursday, Jeff talked briefly about Beavis and Butthead.  As I’m sure everyone remembers, he basically used them as an example of bad critics.  Last semester in Erik Stolterman’s course on Experience Design, he lectured about what makes someone an expert on something.  We talked about how experts are people with lots and lots of experience and knowledge on certain topics.  One example was a wine connoisseur.  What makes someone a wine connoisseur?  I love wine and therefore drink a lot of wine… but I would never in a million years call myself a wine connoisseur.  In order to be a wine connoisseur, you need to really understand wine – everything from how it’s made to how it tastes, smells, looks, and feels compared to hundreds (maybe thousands?) of other wines.  I suppose in this sense, a good and respected critic really understands what they are saying because they have a vast array of knowledge that they can draw from and relate to that an ordinary person doesn’t have.  Case in point: when I look at those paintings with what appears to be splatters on the canvas, I don’t have enough knowledge to properly take in and understand what I’m seeing.  These paintings still boggle my mind, though, because then I ask myself how good is a painting if only true art critics can appreciate and see the value in it?  What about the general population?

I also think that art appreciation and aesthetics varies depending on culture and cultural upbringing.  One quick example is the way Asians and Americans view beauty (generally speaking, of course).  When I lived in Japan, my students and co-workers would always point out how pale I was (especially in the winter) and they really envied the whiteness of my skin.  At first, I was taken back a bit because paleness in American culture is not generally a good thing.  In America, girls strive to be tan and bronze because to them, that equals beauty.  It really surprised me when I realized that my Japanese students were envious of my pasty white skin because to them, pale white skin equals beauty.  This brings me to the point in the article where they discuss the old age saying of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  This leads me to wonder: is something only defined officially as “art” when the beauty is in the eye of a well-known critic?

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