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Believe in what you see and see what you believe

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled” Ways of Seeing, John Berger (1972).

FramedI told a friend visiting that she should drop by the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park. She asked what kind of art would be exhibited and I said ‘mainly contemporary’. ‘Contemporary’ she queried, ‘aahh you mean art you don’t understand’.

She is not alone in the thought that there is art out there that seems to be inaccessible to anyone other than the cognoscenti. This however is not necessarily the fault of the artist or the artwork so much as the framing institution of art, the gallery space or the museum. We do not question why a residential house may be made of brick or an office skyscraper created from glass. Why, because we understand their intended use, our society has a clear framework for such things even though we may have no knowledge of the architectural and material requirements for the buildings. At the risk of sounding trite, most of us would be able to recognize a rocket if we saw one but how many could explain the science behind it?

As with everything in life art can be based on a multitude of functions; aesthetic, decorative, political, social, educational, historical, philosophical, as therapy and the list goes on. However the framework to view the art does not always sit comfortably with the art itself or its conception. Within the white cube gallery, museum, public space or an art fair we may encounter anything from figurative portraiture to conceptual performance and myriad iterations in between. With commercial necessity, the interloper in the marriage of artist and artwork, it is not surprising that from time to time communication breaks down. How often do you go to a major show in say the Tate and observe that people spend more time reading the curatorial text than they do admiring the artwork itself. This cannot be to suggest that such shows are a matter of the emperor’s new clothes, moreover that they are framing the work poorly. Why can art not be like language, something that communicates on the most basic level but can also transcend its parameters. We should trust our eyes and instinct. Trust our ability to analyze line and form (or lack of) without having to read about terms that have often been applied in hindsight by historians and critics. We habitually judge anyone we meet by their language, their clothes, face, figure, conversation why do we not read an artwork as such? We might take for granted that paintings such as ‘The Ambassadors (Holbein the younger, 1533) are filled with political imagery, but can we really access that imagery in this day and age? Perhaps not, but we can still appreciate the painting. Even if we cannot answer the what, why or how of an artwork, we can consider how it speaks to us personally and question why there may be works that seem not to speak at all.

Catherine Lette is an atist exhibiting at the Urban Art Fair