Art’s power to disturb is also its gift

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Art is art (and not mere reproduction of what can be seen by anyone) because it is evocative — of emotion, thought, and — at its best — passions.

Art is meant to do all of those things; the beauty in Monet’s water lilies evokes peaceful feelings, but if pleasantry is all art inspired it could not help us evolve. And art does just that. By suggesting we look differently. By suggesting what lies beneath is more than what appears at surface, and by blurring that border.

Some art is deliberately created to be disturbing or offensive, designed to make us think about issues (sometimes depicting the opposite of what we see in it). Sometimes only our reactions make it so.

Either way, strong reactions remind that despite common elements, each person experiences life — and thus, its depictions — differently. Thus 10 people can experience the same piece of art, especially great art, in 10 radically different ways.

Take the meditative Rothko Chapel in Houston, a small, contemplative place featuring 14 of Mark Rothko’s world-famous paintings. At a glance these giant canvases appear black. Boring? Peaceful? Many visitors have reacted with tears. If you look longer, you see purple and green and gray and... The brush strokes and layers move somehow. I didn’t cry, but I did feel, which surprised me at age 20.

Works by great artists go further, influencing societal growth. The centuries have forgotten, but changes in women’s portraiture such as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa shifted the way “the fairer sex” was viewed. By painting a woman from a different pose — close-in and smiling directly at the painter — he made it intimately personal. Women in such poses suggested individuality and personality, more than mere mannequins or possessions of fathers and husbands. For the time, this was a change in perspective, one we now take for granted.

Andy Warhol’s famous soup can of the 1960s wasn’t merely an odd choice of subject. It became a statement about an increasingly throw-away society. Something now common once was not — nearly everything we buy is disposable. That wasn’t so for prior generations who created, reused, and preserved much more of their consumption. His art, and many who followed, made us pause.

Art is often political, whether or not it is meant to be. Such art may evoke pain, but that pain becomes useful when society questions the efficacy of certain paths, or degree of integrity. Mexico’s Diego Rivera and his murals exalted the common and oppressed worker, condemning the ruling elite. His wife, Frida Kahlo — some say the superior artist — depicted feminine suffering with harsh distortion and no holds barred. Many disturbing and evocative works throughout history, such as Picasso’s Guernica, reflect the impacts of war — innocence lost, genocide, tragedy. The Berlin Wall was covered in paintings, protesting its existence, changing its meaning from struggle and restriction to free expression, brotherhood, and beauty.

Even Monet and his lilies had more than aesthetic impact, taken in context. Impressionists had a rather revolutionary way of depicting things less directly, and with movement, so the viewer feels as much as sees the subject. At the time, that was a different take on what was expected from art. Take one among the most famous of the era: In Van Gogh’s Starry Night, the sky moves, the shapes take on dreamy, even nightmarish qualities. Much later Salvador Dali took dream-flights of the imagination to the point of confusion and disturbance, with his melting clocks and distorted figures.

So if art disturbs, ask what you feel, what others feel, and why. Like it or hate it, if art is evocative, it’s being true to its — and our — essence.

• • •

Sholeh Patrick is columnist for the Hagadone News Network who still struggles to “get” much abstract art. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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