I really do believe that art is for everyone, but many people don’t get into it because they are intimidated. I can understand the (false) perception that you have to have this encyclopedic understanding of art history in order to appreciate art, and that if you don’t just absolutely love every piece cited as a masterpiece, then it’s your fault and you just don’t “get it.” It’s unfortunate that this perception is so prevalent because it is patently untrue.
Art is, almost by definition, subjective. It is emotional. When experiencing art, we are going on a journey, one in which we bring all of our past experiences and values in to our understanding and appreciation of a work. Given the huge diversity of experiences, it seems obvious (to me at least) why everyone experiences art differently, and thus appreciates different art.
I do think that there is an objective answer to the technical qualities of a work. Some pieces are just simply painted/written/composed better than others. I don’t think that anyone would claim that Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto’s are less technically accomplished than The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or that the Monet’s On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt is less technically accomplished than Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup.
For me personally, though, I prefer Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band over the concertos because I just don’t respond emotionally to Baroque era pieces. Similarly I like the Warhol piece over the Monet piece because the impressionistic period, well, kinda bores me. Most impressionists painted subjects who were well off, usually in a state of leisure. I don’t get the sense that impressionists were trying to really say anything with there pieces, but rather were trying to push the boundaries of technique. This approach just doesn’t invoke the same response in me that the idea-focused works of Picasso or Dali do.
I don’t mean to diminish the importance of Monet or Bach; they were both pivotal to the growth of their respective meanings, and were very talented artists. They just aren’t my cup of tea is all, which is fine. I recognize that many people don’t share the same tastes that I have. Shostakovich is one of my favorite composers, but critical opinions of him are mixed. For example, French composer Pierre Boulez was critical of Shostakovich, dismissing it as “the second, or even third pressing of Mahler.” (3) That doesn’t really matter to me though, because when I listen to his work, I love it. I also recognize that Boulez doesn’t like Shostakovich the same way that I don’t like Monet. Everyone is different, and that makes it interesting.
So what about someone who isn’t in to art and doesn’t know where to start? My advice is to try and sample as much as possible. Go to a varied and all-encompasing museum (such as the de Young museum in San Francisco), instead of a more focused museum (like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Museums like the de Young make it easy to see a lot of different types of artwork. The same thing for music, film, and literature: just experience as much as possible. There is so much variety in the art world that there is most likely something for everyone. Finding out what one likes is the hard part. Once you know what you like the rest is easy, and rewarding.
(1) “On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt.” The Art Institute of Chicago. Available: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/Impressionism/Monet
(2) “Andy Warhol.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Warhol
(3) “Dimitri Shostakovich.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dmitri_Shostakovich#Criticism
P.S. My banner for this site is a cropped version of a photo I took of a piece at the de Young museum in San Francisco.