Art appreciation without prejudice Mindfulness Man Martin Stepek
ANEW art exhibition opens at Glasgow’s Tramway this week. I have been invited to play a role in the show – called Narrative – for one day only. My task is to accompany people who have signed up for a “mindful tour” of the exhibition, and help them explore two deeply related sets of experiences. The first is to look inside at various points and try to notice what they themselves are bringing to the exhibition. This may be expectations, assumptions, perhaps even prejudices. Prejudices may of course be favourable or negative towards a particular thing. All these preconceptions colour how we experience the show’s content.
The second set of experiences is viewing the exhibition itself. Does it conform to expectations? Does it confirm assumptions? Does it match prejudices or confound them?
How did we come to have such prejudices and expectations in the first place? Imagine two individuals go along to a Dali art exhibition. One goes along because she loves Dali’s work. The other attends simply because he has nothing else to do. The latter has never even heard of Dali.
Now, in error, the Dali paintings have been mixed up with a set of Jackson Pollocks, and each artist’s work is now set up in the wrong exhibition space. Our first visitor enters with prior knowledge of Dali but has no knowledge of Pollock’s work. She is shocked at how different the art on display is to what she expected from a Dali exhibition, and yet, assuming that the works are Dali’s, she allows this “different” approach to filter into her understanding of Dali as an artist. The second visitor simply sees the incorrectly hung Pollock paintings as Dali works. He either likes or doesn’t like the paintings.
The first visitor has assimilated her new experience into a pre-existing view of an artist’s work. The second has registered for the first time a perspective of an artist’s work. One started with a prejudice, a set of assumptions. The other didn’t. But now both have new assumptions about Dali the artist, and both assumptions are false.
The Tramway exhibition is of art works created in prisons, secure hospitals, secure children’s homes, immigration detention centres, and community justice services. It is held by the Koestler Trust, which uses art to help prisoners, and to change people’s views of what prisoners can become. It is curated by the Scottish novelist, Jenni Fagan.
Can any of us attend an exhibition knowing the background of the creation of the works of art, and still experience them, purely, with no pre-conceptions? If we view exhibitions by people from these backgrounds favourably is that not itself a veil through which our view of the exhibition is inevitably coloured?
All this demands that we face up to major challenges about ourselves, our preferences, indeed the degree to which we can trust and manage our minds. Why do I like the art of William Blake but don’t like Da Vinci’s work? Why do I hold the political and social views I hold rather than the opposite views?
The science of the mind tells us our artistic views, like our political ones, are grounded in the genes we inherit. All our life experiences then deepen, challenge or reshape these views. Over time we come to think of them as our own, rationally chosen, and therefore objectively correct perspectives.
The practice of mindfulness helps us shake off these preconceptions and, crucially, the false notion that our own views and opinions are necessarily correct. This is immensely liberating. My aim at the exhibition tour is to try to help people out of that deluded view.