Every so often I am asked what does this painting mean? What are you trying to say through this work of art? Well if I were trying to say something that could be conveyed through words I would probably have written a poem or told a story. I create an art work, precisely because what I want to express, or rather that which wants to get expressed through me, is something that is best expressed and evoked through color, line and their interplay. It may not always be something very profound, just the ordinary, even the mundane can be transformed by a work of art into something sublime and beautiful.
So, for those who are uncertain about how to view a painting the answer is really very simple, just look. See. Observe. It is not necessary for you to try to figure out and understand what the artist is trying to say. All you have to do is watch. If the painting is to your taste you will enjoy this watching, and you can continue to watch as long as your interest holds out, as long as you enjoy the experience of watching this painting. If the painting evokes only repulsion/disdain/dislike, even then stay and watch and try to identify what it is that is evoking the repulsion/disdain/dislike. The painting is an invitation for you to meet yourself, to take a journey into yourself - of self-understanding. As you enjoy the experience of this self-awareness, you are well on your way to appreciating art.
The contemporary Indian artist Prabhakar Kolte, when speaking on the topic of art appreciation, classified five categories of viewers - the connoisseur, the artist, the critic, the student and the teacher/buyer. Each of these five categories is present in each of us. The connoisseur or the Rasika in Indian parlance is the one who truly enjoys the relationship between the work of art and him/herself, the critic estimates, evaluates and comments upon the value of the work, the student of course learns and the teacher teaches and instructs. The artist is the one who has chosen to dedicate his/her life to creating art.
That might bring us to the more basic question "what is art?" Let us take a painting done by a child in all glee, delight, abandon, concentration and joyful self-expression. Would that be classified as art? A portrait of me done by my next-door neighbor as a birthday gift for me, is that art? No, definitely not, you might say, but then it turns out that my neighbor's name is Anjolie Ela Menon, who I might add is a very famous contemporary Indian artist and her paintings sell for several thousands of dollars. Then what about the fakes that masquerade as the works of a famous artist and also sell for equally high amounts until identified as being fakes? Is that art? Not even when executed by an accomplished artist? And what when a saleable artist is making reproductions of his own work, not necessarily the same replicas but highly similar in content and form with no evolution, no growth?
Pondering over these questions, one realizes that a work of art is not just a matter of aesthetics, but also of intent and of ethics. This, in the relationship between the artist and the work of art. We have not even touched on the connection between the work of art and the viewer. Since what I define as a work of art may be completely contradictory to what you consider as art. Even giving room for subjective considerations, certain commonalities exist, else there would be no world of art. Here, the role of connoisseurs, critics and buyers becomes important. We would not be regarding Van Gough, Rembrandt, Vermeer and company as the Great Masters if the value of their paintings had not at some point of time been discovered. It is more than probable that the path of art history is littered with the unpreserved canvases of unsung artists.
Yet they were not the losers, for they had their art and for a true artist this relationship is of paramount importance. Given that they are also human beings they too are subject to disappointments, grievances, frustrations, elations and triumphs, but that is just life. Art that, which comes out of life, mirrors it and transcends it at the same time also helps the artist to transcend the realm of ordinary life and to be in communion with one's higher self. In creating the work of art, the artist discovers him/herself (since the process of creating is as much an invitation to self-awareness as the process of viewing) in the act of surrender to art, and thus conversely the artist discovers herself through the act of forgetting herself. And it is the same when viewing a painting. The more you enter into the painting, the more you forget yourself and the more you meet and discover your self. Again, this is true of any activity, the more you give of yourself to it, the more you forget yourself and the more you come closer to your true self, that then is the art of living!