The first rule of art appreciation is to talk about art – Winnipeg Free Press

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There has always been a big gap between the art world and the general public. The art world considers itself to have very high taste. Visual art is incredibly sophisticated, after all. But the public, with few exceptions, is skeptical. Much of the art created today is difficult to understand, and the art world’s tendency to use obscure language is certainly off-putting.

One could argue that artists use such language to preserve distance between themselves and the audience. This distance makes them smarter. Artistic taste, as they say, is a weapon of social stratification.

In many ways, the First Friday art talks at the News Café are an attempt to reduce the distance between the public and the art world. First Fridays wants to invite more Winnipeggers to visit the city’s visual arts scene and to give them the knowledge and confidence to appreciate the art they see.

Robert Rauschenberg’s monogram is an example of his “combinations”, which mix paint and collage with found objects.

The April 3 Art Talk will be the most interactive yet. The public will be invited to discuss the theme of artistic taste, as well as some of the questions most frequently asked by the curious or skeptical public: “Who decides whether art is good or bad? and “Why do some artists ‘succeed’ while others are fired?”

The audience often has good questions. Even the cliched criticism of modern art that “my child could do that” has, at its heart, serious concerns: a perceived lack of skill, a perceived lack of beauty, and the absence of any real means of evaluating the success of a work of art.

Of course, the simple answer is that qualified professionals, such as curators, gallery directors and critics, decide whether an artist’s work is worthy of an exhibition.

But British writer and philosopher Roger Scruton has some choice words for these trained professionals, calling their expertise “fake”.

“Perhaps the art world is just a vast simulacrum in which we all participate because, after all, there is no real cost,” says Scruton.

Scruton, a staunch supporter of conservatism, is more than a little cantankerous. But to be fair, the UK art scene is considerably more volatile than ours. In Winnipeg, when an artist wins an award, we applaud politely. In Britain, when an artist wins the Turner Prize, the nation erupts in a circus of controversy and protest, prompting an Evening Standard reviewer to write: “The annual Turner Prize farce is now as inevitable as the pantomime of Christmas “.

If Scruton has a problem with contemporary art, it’s because we live in a time when anything can be called art. Today, artists use anything (be it paint, a tire found in the garbage can, or a goat) to form their own nuanced and individualized visual languages. This can mean several things – they need to be decoded before they can be enjoyed, which the average person feels ill-equipped to do, and it becomes nearly impossible to form true standards of excellence.

And, if there are no standards, asks Scruton, why do we trust professionals in the art world to tell us what art is good?

For our part, Winnipeg is home to many talented professionals who bring new ideas to our city, guide perception and welcome diverse audiences. Urban Shaman’s current project, featuring KC Adams’ anti-racism posters, is a testament to this.

But Scruton’s ideas are worth trying. During the Friday Art Talk, members of the public will be invited to share their opinions on a wide variety of artworks. They will be shown works by artists deemed important by the art world—those who have achieved success locally, nationally and internationally—and works by amateurs. But here’s the catch: audiences won’t initially know which is which.

The exercise should be entertaining, of course, but it also aims to examine where artistic taste comes from and how it is influenced. When a pristine white gallery endorsement is removed, when the artist’s name and price tag are not visible, does that change the way we view art? Maybe yes, maybe no. But it could go a long way in giving us the confidence to appreciate art on our own terms.

Sarah Swan is a writer and arts educator and host of Art Talk/Art Walk at the News Café. To purchase tickets for this event, please call 204-943-0682.

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