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Teasing out your inner art critic

CONTEMPORARY art is baffling to many people. But a Canadian art educator says art appreciation is not about special knowledge and anyone can learn to do it. She offers a course, writes Nancy Zhang.

Unlike popular music and cinema, contemporary art is not as accessible to the average Joe. People feel the need to have extensive knowledge about the artist, the art scene and other mysterious artsy things to make sense of it all.

Not so, says Canadian art educator Sheila Greenspan. In an ongoing art appreciation course in Shanghai, she demystifies the process of enjoying contemporary art.

Although Greenspan spent the first 15 years of her career as head of art education at two museums in Canada, she feels traditional lecture-style art appreciation courses tend to intimidate viewers and distance them from art.

"If I go to an exhibition with an 'art expert' who guides me by saying, 'Notice this, notice that,' I may walk away from the encounter thinking, 'Without them I know nothing,'" says Greenspan.

"Actually appreciating visual art is not about special knowledge, but how you respond to it and anyone can learn to do it."

In a five-week course starting yesterday, Greenspan shares her personal methodology for appreciating contemporary art. It is held in conjunction with Eastlink gallery. The course is limited to 20 persons, so reservations are required.

She will take viewers to exhibitions, allowing them to become familiar with modern art, and then narrow their focus so they can judge for themselves the quality of a work and whether they like it.

"Part of the problem is that modern art is so new, you can only make sense of something if you see a great deal of it and know what to compare it to," says Greenspan. For example, she says, someone who has never seen a blouse can't make good decisions when shopping for a blouse. "You need to be familiar with blouses in general and then compare blouses in the same category."

Another problem, says Greenspan, is that people are afraid to make qualitative judgments on art. Assuming that all art is subjective, people may dismiss good art that is not to their taste.

This is particularly true of modern art as the subject is not usually as obvious as that in traditional paintings. The key, says Greenspan, is how you respond to the work.

Her approach teases out our inner art critic by asking for an immediate response, and then asking the viewer to define what it is about the art that evokes this reaction.

"I keep asking, 'What else do you feel? What else do you see?' and usually the viewer finds more and more. When you spend the time with the artwork, a dialogue starts. Art is not in the art or the viewer, but the space in between them."

This is the third straight year Greenspan has conducted the course in Shanghai.

For the last 15 years she has taught a similar course in the Dundas Valley School of Art in Ontario, Canada.

She began the course partly because her daughter is living in Shanghai, and partly because the Chinese modern art scene is so interesting.

Especially interesting, she says, is that Chinese artists are free from the weight of Western traditions and are therefore more experimental, particularly with multimedia. At the same time there is a tension between globalization and the desire to hold on to traditional culture.

This year the sessions include visits to Eastlink gallery, M50, MoCA, Zendai, Duolun, and Bund galleries. There will also be a session on photography as it is becoming an important medium.

Eastlink gallery

Address: 5/F, Bdg 6, 50 Moganshan Rd

Tel: 6276-9932

To reserve a place, please send e-mail to Cost is 650 yuan (US$95) for five sessions (limited to 20 places).


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