The power of dialogue in art

Does a work of art need to be beautiful? Art can be more than that. It starts dialogues, raises questions, and connects people with different perspectives. Art has transformative power. It is important for humanity.

The need for recognition is food for the ego

Do you know what I like best about exhibiting? The interesting conversations that arise from contact with visitors. I love my work as a photographer, image-maker, artist or whatever you want to call it. Even if I won’t get any recognition ever from the (social) media, the art world, colleagues, peers, family and friends. I recently had a mail exchange about this subject with a friend who is a well-known photographer. He asked if my exhibition was a success. I wrote back to him that I was certainly satisfied with my presentation, but that I am struggling a lot with marketing and PR. If you just start out as an artist, it is hard to attract people to your expo.

I quote from my e-mail: “I believe in myself, but I think it can take a long time before others do the same: D: D: D”. My friend replied: “It is very nice that you believe in yourself. That is a REALLY GOOD thing. But why do you want recognition? Fuck them! YOU believe in yourself so you can take on the world. Searching for recognition is childlike behavior. ”

The transformative power of art by exchanging perspectives

Wow. He was right on the money. Recognition is really just food for your ego, it is true. At the same time, you do need recognition and publicity as an artist. This way you can grow your network and you will be able to show your work to a wide audience. When you reach a wide audience, you have the opportunity to exchange perspectives and make a change.

But why do you want to make a change as an artist? Is this not a narcissistic and unrealistic goal? Let me start with the last statement. Is changing the world an unrealistic goal? If there is one thing I have learned from my psychology studies, it’s that you cannot change people.

People can only change themselves. On the other hand, behavioural change starts with awareness. Consciousness is the first step in learning new things and adjusting behaviour. People can help each other to be more aware of certain thoughts and behaviours. For example by sharing information, exchanging perspectives and evoking emotions.

The goal of art is more than aesthetic pleasure

Exchanging perspectives is one of the reasons why I enjoy my work as an artist. I do not really care if people ‘like’ my art. Pure aesthetic pleasure is not really the primary goal of my art. In fact, I can experience aesthetic pleasure in other ways. Just take a walk in nature or look at the people around you. Of course, there have been and there are so many artists who try to give the viewer this kind of experience in their artworks. But if I can also just go outside in the park and experience things in real life, why would I want to be sitting in front of a picture that shows the same thing on a paper?

It is very difficult to define art because art contains a subjective element. There isn’t a really reliable way to verify an opinion about art objectively nor to form a unified consensus. As a matter of fact, the subjective is ‘made’ objective by galleries, the art market, and art competitions. They objectify in a way which artworks are good and bad, which makes some artists’ work rises to the top while other artists’ work disappears without a trace. But this is a topic you can devote a whole new blog to.

Recently, I came across a definition of art that I strongly believe in. This definition contains two important aspects: art is capable of exciting the spirit and art has transformative power. I do not think there is something wrong with purely aesthetic pleasure, but as Maria-Alina Asavei (2015) puts forward it in her essay: “Not every beautiful thing looks good at first sight. By the same token, not everything that looks beautiful is in fact beautiful.” What I try to say is that aesthetic pleasure can be a function of art, but it’s not the only function and certainly not the most important function of art. I think art is more than that. Good art makes you think and starts a dialogue.

Art can change your perspective on a certain matter. It can elicit pleasant or uncomfortable feelings that make you aware of things you were not aware of before. The art that I like myself, is often critical art, conceptual art or what I call inquisitive art. By inquisitive art I mean art that investigates a certain subject, shows a different perspective or discusses taboos. A few artists that I really like who are capable of doing this are: Sophie Calle, Paul Kooiker, Marina Abramovic, Wolfgang Tillmans, Araki, Pipilotti Rist, Pauline Oltheten, and Agnes Varda.

Critical art often does not seem to raise in viewers the feeling of aesthetic pleasure. It usually does not strike you with beauty at first sight, because it deals with issues of social injustice, political struggles, taboos or anything else that is out of your comfort zone.

Art should create dialogue and bring people closer together

Back to the first question. Art should not be about the ego. Art should be about transformation, connection and dialogue. But is this desire to make transformative art not a narcissistic thought in itself? This is a difficult one and the answer is probably worth another blog. In short: I think that everything we do also serves a purpose for ourselves. Also, healthy narcissism is not a bad thing. As Wikipedia explains: healthy narcissists possess realistic self-esteem without being cut off from a shared emotional life (as the unhealthy narcissist tends to be).

I believe that true ego art will never prevail. It does not evoke any emotion or communicates anything valuable. For me, the need for dialogue is a no-brainer. Let me turn the question around. What if we would live in a world without dialogue? What if we no longer exchange perspectives? Maybe we would extinct. Without communication, would we be able to survive?

When I look at the things that I personally find important, such as freedom, equality, respect, and human rights, I can only conclude that exchanging perspectives and sharing experiences brings us closer together. In fact, this is what many artists have been doing and if it wasn’t for them, a lot of subjects would not have been on the political agenda.  If we want to be more inclusive and understanding, it starts with questioning ourselves and listening to what others have to say.

The nice thing about art is that it is a sort of natural and safe ‘mediator’ who can help you ask questions to yourself and to others. Dialogues in tv shows and other media are also important, don’t get me wrong, but it can easily get into a fight because it is more about statements than about asking questions. People are in a way stimulated to make statements in the media. That is a problem because it polarises our society. An artwork can ask questions and gives the viewer time to think about things. It offers a more neutral or pleasant basis to talk about what you think.

Why asking questions in art is important

As far as I am concerned, asking questions and listening to each other is a vital necessity. Moreover, it is essential for me as an artist. Art is not about answers, but about asking questions and leaving enough scope for others to think about this. Sometimes this is really difficult because I do have an opinion about the subjects in my work. That’s why I find it important to get feedback from others. This makes me aware of my own prejudices and interpretations.

My perspectives are also colored by my own upbringing and environment. For me, it’s normal to see a naked body for example because I grew up with open-minded parents who I saw naked in the bathroom regularly. But I also know a lot of friends who never saw their parents naked. So it is logical that some of these friends feel uncomfortable when you confront them with nudity. But what is so beautiful is that through my art, my friends can find a safe space to talk about it. They can look at the pictures and tell me what they see and what they feel.

And obviously, this mechanism applies to everyone and to every kind of subject. This is why I think you can also be more radical in art than in tv shows without polarizing. People can still think ‘oh what a silly artist’ or ‘I don’t really like this art’. It is easier to not take things personally. If you are radical in media, it immediately becomes very personal because it usually has consequences for people’s lives.

Questions are more interesting than answers

Let’s go one step further. I regularly see a woman walking in a niqab. This woman grew up with other ideas about covering and exposing yourself than I did. It is easier to judge than to make an effort and try to relate to these women. It is something that happens to everyone. Everybody judges. But what I find strange, is that we do not always investigate our judgments by asking questions to others and to ourselves.

To be honest, I never dared to approach a woman with a niqab and to ask her some questions. What she thinks about exposing yourself, what that means to her, and what she thinks of my ideas about exposing myself. Wouldn’t that be extremely fascinating?  Maybe running around naked gets a totally different dimension for me after speaking with a woman from a different culture. Communication is not about agreeing or disagreeing with each other. It is about exchanging perspectives.

Not to put all the blame on the media, but they do stimulate my fear to approach people and talk about these subjects. That’s why I am happy I have my art and I am pretty sure there will be a project in the future about this subject in which I can freely ask questions and connect with people from different backgrounds.

How questions lead to fascinating conversations

I am aware that my view of art is personal. What I hope to accomplish with my art is to exchange ideas with others. I experience the most magical moments when that exchange takes place. In my last expo, I got a question from a visitor: “why do you photograph the nude, is that really necessary?”

At first, I was irritated. Here we go again, someone who questions nudity. It’s not about nudity. I use the body as a tool to explore the themes in my work, just like a lot of artists do and have done in the past. However, the conversation that I had with this visitor was fascinating. We disagreed with each other on many points, but that didn’t matter. We talked for over an hour about the topics that are dear to me. At one point I was not even involved in the conversation anymore and the dialogue between the visitors continued. Fantastic!

Dialogues are the biggest compliments to my work

During my last expo, I felt that I received the greatest compliment and also the best feedback on my project THE GAME. When I asked a visitor what she thought of this project, she replied: “Because you both take on the role of photographer and model and you both expose yourself, you create an equal relationship.”

She came up with this herself. I did not put anything into her head. In fact, she gave me a new perspective as well. During the project, I was constantly looking for this balance, this equal relationship. The remark of this woman made me aware of the fact I don’t really need to strive for anything in my projects. The simple fact that I collaborate with another person and create a space to investigate our relationship, is all I have to do.

This woman made me think. About my communication, my way of working, my personality and how that comes across to the other person. That is what dialogues do to me. I hope my art can do the same and make other people think about their ideas. That can be anything. Positive or negative. If my art triggers thoughts, ideas and dialogues, I am a satisfied person.

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