As a public school student in New Canaan, Connecticut, my art classes taught me that art is culture. Specifically, that understanding art gives you culture, makes you cultured; that European Art is Culture; that fancy museums have European Art; that these fancy museums exist in great cities all over the world; and that I should go to more of these great cities in Europe to see more of this Art. (Oh, and, not to worry if my parents hadn’t taken me there yet; one day I could make myself a lot of money and travel to these places to finally understand Art and be Cultured.)
Every so often, two stay-at-home mothers with dyed-blonde hair would come give us an Art lesson. They called their program "Learning to Look," and, holding rolled-out poster copies of Picassos or Rembrandts, they would tell us what we should notice. They taught us about looking for triangular patterns in these paintings (and other things that I could elaborate on here if I'd actually paid attention to anything that they'd said).
During our annual end-of-the year trips into New York City to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art (and once, The Museum of Modern Art), we got the exciting chance to see these pieces and other famous works in real life. (!!!) They would take us to the galleries that they deemed most worth seeing (Rembrandt, Picasso, da Vinci, Renoir), making sure to avoid any other galleries—God forbid we should look at any African, Middle Eastern, Asian, Oceanic, or South American collection of art (lower-case a) that came from anywhere outside of Europe. They would stop at the selected works that they'd already shown us copies of and ask us questions that effectively prompted us to regurgitate what they had talked about in class. At that point I found myself wishing I'd paid any kind of attention to their lectures.
My failure to pay attention in those classes followed me for a long time. Every time I went back to the Metropolitan, or any other museum for that matter, I felt like an imposter, pretending to get what I was looking at. I spent more time reading the little squares next to the works rather than the works themselves, lest I not truly understand what I was looking at. If only I had been "learning to look" when I was supposed to… I could have been able to understand this Art and familiarize myself with the Artists who made it. But since I hadn't paid attention, there remained barriers to understanding.
I could not look at art and glean from it what I wanted to see, lest I miss what I should have been seeing: following some elusive standards of being able to look in order to get Cultured, for whatever those words and understandings never meant to me, left me feeling stuck and ignorant.
I don't want to learn how to look; I just want to look and feel. Maybe that's wrong of me, but that's what I want. What I want is to want. I want to want to look at art because I can feel it and understand something inherently, and not because I finally achieve some elusive ideal of what I'm supposed to understand in order to get Cultured, whatever that's supposed to mean.
And the first time I really felt something was with graffiti. Graffiti. From what we know, it sounds so barbaric and unrefined; it definitely doesn’t sound like Art, and if it does sound like anything, it sounds like the opposite of whatever I was initially supposed to learn about being Cultured. But that's not the sense I got when I encountered it in São Paulo, in Brazil's neighborhood of Vila Madalena.
People travel to Vila Madalena specifically for the graffiti that covers buildings all over the neighborhood, especially in an area called Beco do Batman (translated from Portuguese: Batman Alley). While graffiti appears all over São Paulo, it most often comes in the form of "tagging," where people will haphazardly spray paint their initials just to mark their territory or say that they've been there. That might be art, if you could even call it that. However, in Vila Madelena lies an amazingly high concentration of real graffiti; of street art; of Art.
In Vila Madalena, graffiti is Culture. People travel from all over the world to leave their Art there, and people come from all over the world to look at it. At Beco do Batman, the walls are open for graffiti artists to paint as they please. These walls are constantly changing: street artists paint over one another's work, and the turnaround can be anywhere from months to hours. But no matter, artists often come back to paint over another artist's work, yet again, to have theirs stay there for however long it may. Over time, certain artists gain recognition, and people come back again and again to see what new work they may have done. These artists don't get paid for their work; and they may or may not be recognizable to the public, as they often paint and leave.
In my previous experiences in museums, Art prompted the question: what am I supposed to understand about a Picasso? At Beco do Batman, however, the work prompted the question: how do I want to think about this art? I looked at the work and felt what was being painted because there was nothing specific I was supposed to understand. The art felt alive because it could be gone by the next day, and something new would be in its place. I felt that I loved these artists whom I didn't even know. I loved them because they were free; free to paint where they wanted, free from money; free to do want to do what they wanted.
And they freed me from learning to look.
They come and leave their mark because they want to, and they don’t have to wait for someone to declare their work Art. They already know it is. And I—one member of a very large audience—I loved it all. Here were people doing what they wanted because they wanted. And here was a space for them to do that. And here was a place where I could feel what I wanted to feel. I fell in love with Art for the first time in my life. I fell in love with feeling what I want to feel when I look at Art.