Wandering through the National Art Gallery a few years back I learned something important about life.
The gallery was filled with two types of people, solemn-nodders and bewildered-head-shakers. The solemn-nodders spent long periods of time in front of each painting, chins cupped in hand, ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ emanating from their mouths. They got art. The bewildered-head-shakers shuffled from painting to painting with a look of bewilderment and a pained expression that screamed ‘they spent my tax dollars on that?!’
I was an aspirational-solemn-nodder. I didn’t really know much about art but I wanted to. I was visiting with a friend who was very much a solemn-nodder. As we stood in front of each piece of art my friend explained the period it belonged to and why it was significant.
Then we came to the most ridiculous painting of all, a big black square. That was it, a big black square on a piece of canvas, a piece of art that thrust me firmly into the bewildered-head-shaker camp. ‘I could have painted that!’ I scornfully declared.
‘Scott, just stop and take a closer look.’
I stopped and took a closer look. All I could see was a big black square, until my friend pointed out that the big black square was made up of nine smaller squares, each a slightly different shade.
‘Yes, I can see it!’ I triumphantly announced.
My friend went on to explain that this painting was part of a movement that used monochrome and what they were trying to achieve and why that was significant. When he finished his spiel a middle aged gentleman whom neither of us had ever met but was surely a bewildered-head-shaker, looked at my friend and said, ‘That’s the biggest load of bull________ I’ve ever heard’, turned and walked out of the gallery.
I’m still not sure about the merits of the big black square. Some days I side with my friend, others with that middle aged man. What I do know is that staring at that painting I learned something important – to stop and take a closer look. In life things are rarely as black and white as at first glance they seem. Life is made up of often subtle shades of grey. Moral issues that I want to reduce to easy, simplistic explanations are full of nuance and complexity. People that I want to embrace or ignore with sweeping generalisations about their character are full of surprise and complexity.
Does the big black square belong in the National Gallery? I really don’t know. It’s one of those things only the solemn nodders understand. What I do know is that standing in front of that painting I learned something important about life: always take the time to stop and take a closer look.