The mouth of Helene – or why art is important

Like a lightning flash, I realised I had seen that mouth somewhere. Dads mouth was open, with a slightly confused and pained expression. Then it dawned on me: it was a self-portrait by a then 80-year old Helene Schjerfbeck, facing old age. Some six months ago I was standing next to a hospital bed in the ER, watching  helplessly as my dad fought for his life. Art is important in many ways, but here’s why it’s been important to me lately.

What is modern art?

Look, I get it. Modern art can be frustrating. Often it can seem like a puzzle to be solved, like some hidden message to be deciphered. Friends and family sometimes turn to me asking: “What’s the meaning of this artwork?” I share their frustration as I try to explain that there isn’t just one answer to that question.

Modern art – the kind that can consist of a single urinal – is about subjectivity. At the turn of the 19th century artists started making art based on their own experiences and feelings. Before this, art was made for rich people or the church – they paid, so they got to decide what went into the painting. Modern art changed that.

Challenging the notion that art must realistically depict the world, some artists experimented with the expressive use of color, non-traditional materials, and new techniques and mediums. Among these new mediums was photography, whose invention in 1839 offered radical possibilities for depicting and interpreting the world.

– MoMA, What is Modern Art? 

What this means for us, is that art after these trailblazers is much more subjective – there aren’t easy answers. That’s whats so great, and so frustrating about modern art: it makes you think. I can’t give you an absolute explanation of an artwork, because there isn’t just one.

Why is it important?

Great. So if we all see the urinal in a different way, what’s the point? Many of the early modern artists believed, that through depicting their individual experiences of the world and living in it, they could tap into something greater – a more universal, human experience of the world.

Even if our views of the mysterious urinal are different, we may be able to find some common ground  – and more importantly, we might recognize something familiar in the artwork that we can connect to. This way, art can help us face the universal questions of being human. This is the reason I wanted to research modern art. I noticed it often dealt with things I found hard to look at and to think of. Which is also why I think it’s important I think of and look at them consciously. Art can help with this.

What about Helene?

Thankfully, dad is better now. Even so, during these past months I have been thinking a lot about how fragile life is – and how final death is. For months I avoided thinking about those visits to the ER. If the image of my fathers helpless open mouth popped into my mind, I quickly pushed it away.

Some time later, I was leafing through a book, and came face to face with Helene’s mouth again. Maybe enough time had passed, but somehow it was easier to face those memories with her – looking at this self-portrait. I explore these thoughts in my PhD research – that maybe it’s easier for us to deal with painful experiences by facing them through art. After all, when looking at Helene’s self-portrait I realised I was not alone. Art is important, because it can help us find a connection with each other.

Why though?

We’ve probably all had to deal with that devil on the shoulder asking if whatever you’ve chosen as your professional career makes any sense – it’s not really worth anything, is it? Most of the time, there’s a relatively easy way out, something to validate the choices made: “I’m a nurse to help save lives” or “I’ll make myself a boatload of cash to have a comfy retirement”. But what if you’re an art historian?

I’ve now been working on my PhD in art history full time for six months, a year before that with a job on the side. Before getting into art history I studied to be a visual artist, and did my bachelor’s degree in art – oil painting, to be more precise. In a moment of weakness, I cried at the graduation dinner with my family, because I felt I’d chosen a useless field as my career. Why couldn’t I have just kept it as a hobby like so many others, and done something sensible, like… accounting? My father was furious. He wasn’t furious because of my choice, but because for a moment I’d lost my faith in myself. He’d supported me financially through studies and bought me paints and canvases since I was a kid. He’d worked his ass off at a stressful job so that I could do what I wanted. And it’s true, I really wanted to ‘do art’. But is it enough?

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