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Have a hard time liking contemporary art?

September 17, 2018

The work of Andy Warhol was featured in a recent exhibit at the Rochester Art Center.

Frequent a gallery that exhibits contemporary art and chances are you’ll feel like Sheila Dickinson has felt on occasion.

“A fair amount of time I look at something and say, ‘I don’t get it,’ or ‘I don’t like it,’” said Dickinson, artistic director at the Rochester Art Center. “I find you have to have patience.”

That advice is part of a lecture Dickinson will deliver Thursday at 125 Live. Her talk, “Looking at Contemporary Art: Why Does it Have to Be So Difficult?” is hosted by Rochester Friends of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

The subject is particularly relevant because the Rochester Art Center is recovering from a budget crisis brought on, at least to some extent, by scheduling major (and expensive) contemporary art exhibitions that didn’t seem to resonate with local patrons.

“It was not sustainable,” Dickinson said.

Some visitors took a look, felt they didn’t understand what they were seeing, and walked away — and were in no hurry to return.

When it comes to contemporary art, that’s not unusual behavior. “It’s such a common response,” Dickinson said. “I get it. I also walk away. But then I go back.”

Typical reactions to contemporary art, she said, include, “My child could do that.”

Contemporary art only rarely attracts viewers in the way agreed-upon masterpieces do. There is a comfort in the well-known. “We know how to look at Rembrandt,” Dickinson said. “We don’t even have to think about it.”

Contemporary art, though, is not always that comfortable.

“When we see something and don’t understand it, we feel criticized,” Dickinson said. “We say, ‘Oh, I’m not smart enough.’” Nobody likes to feel dumb.

In reality, brains has nothing to do with it. If it did, Dickinson, with her Ph.D. in art, background as an art critic, and experience as a visiting professor of art at Macalester College, would never be stumped by a piece of art.

She admits, however, that the work of even one of contemporary art’s most recognizable figures, Jackson Pollock, often leaves her at a loss. “I find it difficult to find any kind of meaning,” Dickinson said. “Even though we know him, he still remains difficult.”

That might change at some point. Works that were once viewed as difficult modernities can eventually move into the mainstream. They can seem less daunting as we adapt to them.

Dickinson provided an example:

When Theodore Roosevelt, a cultured and educated former president, visited the 1913 Armory Show, the first major exhibit of impressionist and modern works to be shown in America, he famously exclaimed, “That’s not art!”

Crowds that today line up to see those same works by Matisse, Picasso and Cezanne would likely disagree.

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