Thoughts on the Notion of Art as Self-Reflection

Today’s post is an attempt to draw some (non-linear) conclusions about my relationship with art. Four years ago, I moved to the United Kingdom with the somewhat fanciful wish of becoming an art historian. I ended up graduating from my BA with a Distinction, a badge that I wear with pride. However, I also came to the realisation that neither academia nor the art world would be part of my career. Past the initial regret, I understood that I was simply not meant to take that route. Nonetheless, this prompted key questions like “what is the meaning of whatever you have been doing for the past three years?” and “what is your relationship with art now?”. Here are some of my most recent reflections on the topic.

I spent the past nine months studying for a degree in Management at Judge Business School. This was a good testing ground, among other things, to confirm whether or not I could actually bid farewell to the art world and build a career in a different field. As it turns out, this was the case. Soon I will be joining a firm in the City of London and, most importantly, I observed how my enjoyment of art is not tied to the academic setting I had grown accustomed to. If anything, I found looking at art from a non-technical perspective liberating, compared to the past few years of history-centric rigour. I rediscovered the simple pleasures of wandering through museums and galleries, as well as attending openings without the pressure of networking in preparation for the next round of (unpaid) internships.

One of my early student fascinations was the Social History of Art, a critical movement that developed in the early 20th century from the tradition of historical materialism. According to Arnold Hauser (arguably a predecessor of the Social History of Art proper), art may be understood as a byproduct of the social and historical milieu in which it was produced. As a historian, I understood his idea, in the same way I understood that any form of criticism is in itself period-specific. For this reason, while I knew that my experience probably differed from that of those who saw the same works earlier in history, I nonetheless found art a powerful tool in projecting both my consciousness and that of people past into some sort of common space. Art, in a way, creates a dialogue that is at once extremely personal and extremely open.

My artistic tastes changed considerably over time. Back in high school, I became interested in Baroque and Mannerist art mostly due to an age-appropriate contrarian spirit. The High Renaissance was by far the most popular period among my classmates and teachers, so that any art movement that would consciously subvert those canons of “perfection” (a term that would later make me recoil as a university student) fascinated me almost instantaneously. It was only later in college that I discovered modern art and the exciting opportunities offered by critiquing traditional notions of style and beauty.

When I look back at the “phases” of my artistic appreciation, I do not necessarily see a common trait in terms of aesthetics or historical themes. Rather, I envisage the way in which the works that I was admiring reflected certain aspects of my own personal life and the narrative that I built around it. From the triumphant Baroque aesthetic to the troubled compositions of Mannerism and the irony of postmodern art, all those features would somehow describe my experience and perception at the time when I was most interested in them.

Over time, I came to think of art as a form of self-reflection; a dialogue with myself as well as the cultural and historical references that underpin (more or less consciously) various aspects of my identity. In a letter to a friend, Italian political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli compared being in his studio to conversing with the great thinkers of the past. In his words, the act of aesthetic appreciation takes the form of an exchange, an interaction that enlightens and frees him from the burden and occasional insecurities of daily life. To draw a parallel, I see art’s power in its ability to create connections between ourselves and the histories and narratives that we decide to partake in, either as individuals or as a society.

After three years of studying the history of art, I realised that art definitely played (and plays) a significant role in my self-perception and understanding of the world around me. While viewing new works, visiting exhibitions, and researching artists may not be part of my professional life, it remains a key component of my personal process of identity creation and self-discovery.

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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