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An answer to that age-old question: But is it art?

How people relate individually to art and what it means to individual people

The beauty of art is that one person can talk with utmost passion about the work of a monochrome painter, while another will, with equal passion, discuss the merit of a hyper-realistic artist.

Art and its individual appreciation is a very subjective subject that never ceases to amaze me. Whether at the gallery on a daily basis when visiting other exhibitions or museums, I am always curious to understand what the artwork means for the viewers.

For very established artists and “market darlings”, I often wonder how the monetary value of the artwork affects its perception in the viewers’ eyes. Artworks from Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, Lucio Fontana (above) or Jeff Koons are controversial because of the perceived lack of time spent creating them, yet we often see the public gazing at them for an extended amount of time.

As an art professional, I have to ask myself the same question regularly: Do I like the painting for what it represents, or because I have been forced to like it by the general consensus. This is when the line gets blurry, because the human mind is wired in such a complicated way and affects how we see, or at least perceive things. Was Fontana a genius or a madman? Does a single cut on a monochromatic canvas deserve to be sold for millions, and — most importantly — what is the main motivation for collectors purchasing the work? The answer for this category of blue-chip works is far from being cut and dry (no pun intended), but behind every acquisition there seems to be a mandatory explanation to justify how the artwork relates in one way or another to the buyer.

It gets interesting when we deal with lesser-known artists. The gallery policy is to never display the name or the price of the works next to them, and we often get asked why. Very simple, because I want to encourage face-to-face interaction, and because I don’t want viewers’ appreciation to be skewed by the perceived value of the piece. The reaction from viewers is often more genuine this way, as they feel free to voice their opinion and critiques not knowing which artist they might be looking at.

In most situations, I’ve realised that the perception of an artwork is very individual, with very few people expressing the same feeling while looking at the work. We recently had a show for a young Tunisian artist, Taher Jaoui. His paintings are wide, semi-abstract compositions with lots of colours carrying a universal appeal. Every single person that ended up acquiring a canvas did so for a different reason. A Russian client saw a bit of Wassily Kandinsky in one composition, and the acquisition was motivated by cultural reference. Another collector told me that the colours and the inclusion of mathematic equations reminded him of his time as a student in London, and bought the artwork for the memories attached to that period of his life that he recalled fondly. A Jean-Michel Basquiat fan saw in one painting the matching composition for Irony of Negro Policeman, which has always been his favourite work. I personally was attracted to Taher’s works because of my own art references, which are far and wide from the previous examples.

At the end of the day, I believe there is nothing more intimate than how people relate to art. Just like a song, a canvas can bring back childhood memories, a specific time in your life, a milestone achieved, an emotion, or simply visual joy that can’t — and needn’t — be articulated. The beauty of art is that one person can talk with utmost passion about the work of a monochrome painter, while another will, with equal passion, discuss the merit of a hyper-realistic artist.

Truth is, there are as many ways to relate to a painting as the number of brushstrokes that made it, and all of them are equally valid.

The writer is the director of Opera Gallery Dubai

The beauty of art is that one person can talk with utmost passion about the work of a monochrome painter, while another will, with equal passion, discuss the merit of a hyper-realistic artist.

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