This semester I was able to attend the FIAC in Paris with my Contemporary Art class. The FIAC, or Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporaine, is comprised of a collection of international galleries that exhibit contemporary art to be displayed and sold to collectors form all over the world. It was a beautiful fall day when we went to the Grand Palais to see the exhibit and it was bustling with collectors from all over the world looking at Picassos, Picabias, and Hirsts to be bought and displayed in their foyers. Despite all this amazing artwork I found myself particularly interested in a photograph taken by an American photographer, Mitch Epstein, of a suburb in Long Island, and subsequently spent an inordinate amount of time in front of it. Though it didn’t seem to be a particularly popular gallery, or piece, I couldn’t help but stop in front of the photo because of the feelings it evoked in me. The American suburb has such a distinct aesthetic that was immediately recognizable to me before even reading the caption. The same feelings of nostalgia the photo induced in me, I recognize, would not be created in the French audience, as the suburbs here are very different in appearance than the American suburb. Perhaps for this reason the work was less appealing to the French audience than the American audience, which explained the empty room despite the density of people in most parts of the space.
The trip to the FIAC took place soon after a discussion in class about the artist, Marcel Duchamp. The effect that Mitch Epstein’s piece had on me as an individual was reminiscent of the nature of Marcel Duchamp’s work, which often plays on the distinction between the perception by the French and American audiences. For example, his ready-made, “In advance of a Broken Arm,” came to mind almost instantly. The work features a snow shovel that Duchamp picked up from a hardware store in the United States. Our professor explained to us that Duchamp was aware that while it would seem like an every day and un-extraordinary piece of equipment for the average American, the shovel would have a very different meaning for his French audience, many of whom had never seen a snow shovel before. As a result, based entirely on cultural implications, the same piece of art would have a very different meaning depending on the viewer.
The memory of this piece at the FIAC and the thoughts I had following the viewing of the piece that are mentioned above all came back to me during our discussion of the writers Malcolm Cowley and James Baldwin who discuss an idealized childhood and our cultural identity, respectively. My attraction to the piece was undoubtedly, as aforementioned, due to the combination of these occurrences. I couldn’t help but use this photograph as a representation of America, and while in a foreign land I can’t help but idealize this image of America, and the American suburb. It is representative of my childhood and my upbringing in a way that it very comforting when viewed in retrospect. As mentioned in Malcolm Cowley’s work, my childhood has been completely idealized in my mind, when I think of being home and growing up in my American suburb the images of the Fourth of July scene in the Sandlot pop immediately into my mind and I am immediately nostalgic for my homeland.
I can’t help but think of the subjectivity of art when faced with an experience like this. It’s particularly funny to think of revolutionary and infamous pieces art that are considered staples of fine art being perceived or appreciated differently depending on the viewer. Furthermore, it’s interesting to think that multiple influences, such as where I was brought up, do have an affect on my perception of art and what I like. Not only is our perception of art subjective and based on a vast array of different things, but these things also affect our creation of art.
It’s fascinating to think about an artist like Wassily Kandinsky for this reason and think about the idea that his classical training in music and other art forms is what allowed him to be the first artist to truly make the jump into creating purely abstract art. Like the music he studied Kandinsky recognized how evocative and emotional art can be for the viewer. Rather than recreate images that are more beautiful when found in nature he instead focused on the feeling invoked by certain colors or compositions. Yellow becomes aggressive and blue more calming for example.
For me the past semester take such an art intensive course schedule has made me think so much about the perception of art in society, and what makes art appealing to a large amount of people. I think I’m even more confused, or at least further from the answer, now than I used to be because I recognize that the amount of factors that contribute to something like art appreciation and acceptance are countless. In addition to be being infinite in number, it would seems that factors like our cultural identity and upbringing and the memories we hold dear are major deciders in shaping things like the progression of art in history. These influences are so unique and so subjective for each individual that it seems that questions like these about art and its perception are practically impossible to answer, as they would be different for everybody.