Days Like These: 'To like a work of art, you have to know something about it. This worries me'

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The Independent Online

It was Sarah's idea to go to the Rothko exhibition at Tate Modern in London. Without her, it would have been one of those innumerable cultural events that I hear about, mentally flag and then fail to attend. But Sarah is one of my oldest and dearest friends, and I hadn't seen her for ages, so if she fancied the Rothko, that was good enough for me. Besides, I've always liked Rothko, Barnett Newman... that lot. As a student, I had posters of their works on my wall, and here was an opportunity to see Rothko's paintings in their vast rawness.

The problem was that, as we walked through the rooms, shifting weight from foot to foot, cocking our heads and alternately squinting and peering at enormous blocks of paint on canvas, I realised that, though I was enjoying the exhibition, I could find absolutely nothing to say about it. Sarah, who is probably the cleverest person I've ever met, was doing pretty well, talking about the blurring of boundaries, and a lineage stretching back to Turner. But it felt wrong to let her do all the reacting. I had to say something – and it had to be honest.

There is a great deal of abstract art that I absolutely love, but I realised, while standing in front of Black on Grey, that I haven't got the wherewithal to explain why. In fact, it's worse than that. I actually haven't even considered why. More often than not I go to galleries alone, so I'm not called upon to articulate anything. I can stay in front of a work for as long or as short a time as I like, taking from it whatever I can. But it's a visceral thing, a gut feeling. And the trouble with visual art from the 20th century onwards seems to be that gut is not enough. When a work consists of nothing more than two slabs of colour or a collection of seemingly unconnected everyday objects, it's not enough just to like it, you have to be able to justify your partiality.

That worries me, because it means that in order to like something, you have to know about it. You have to have a little context, a smattering of biography, a grounding in history. In other words, it's for those in the know, not your ordinary Joe. Not for nothing has the phrase "I may not know much about art, but I know what I like" become an exemplar of ignorance. These days, knowing what you like is no substitute for knowing about it.

The same is true of music. I've long had a loathing for the expression "serious music". It implies that people who listen to Bach more than Bacharach somehow deserve more Brownie points. But music is, after all, a random collection of sounds that we have been conditioned to understand as harmonious. The most important thing in listening to music, it seems to me, is how it makes us feel, not whether we can understand its structures. As it happens, I listen to Bach almost every day, but I couldn't even begin to tell you why. I know what it makes me feel, but I don't know how. It's never worried me before, but perhaps it should.

So back to the Rothko exhibition, where I was inadequately mumbling a few half-baked non-sequiturs. "I think I prefer the ones where the outlines are, you know, smudgy. And that orangey red, kind of, zings out at you." And Sarah, because she's a nice person, nodded eagerly, as if these were the very insights she'd come to hear. But then I remembered reading a quotation from Rothko himself, which added to my discomfort: "The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their colour relationship, then you miss the point."

I didn't like the feeling that I was being judged on my reactions by the artist himself. My educational background is in literature where, by and large, once they've published a thing, authors leave you to your own devices. It's up to you what you get out of it. And yet here was an artist from beyond the grave telling me that even though I liked his paintings, the way I liked them was wrong.

I walked through to the final room, which was full of overwhelmingly bleak canvases of monochromatic gloom, and I realised that I wasn't enjoying it any more. Sarah came in and we stood together for a few moments, but I wondered if even she would find a way in to these. At last she nodded her head, took a deep breath and made the perfect observation: "Bloody hell. I need a cup of tea."

If only I'd thought of that.

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