The Art Guidebook For The Modern Man

From advertising to architecture, art shouldn't only be considered a medium of paint and canvas. For many men it seems inaccessible -- though it's everywhere. Except maybe your living room, because you're a touch clueless on the subject. Never fear, it's not as complicated as you think.

For many, ‘art’ can be an often perplexing cultural phenomenon. In the contemporary epoch particularly, questions about what constitutes art have polarized members of the masses and cultural thinkers, often suggesting that the current canon is elitist – and that the “imbecilic” majority lacks a certain Je Ne Sais Quoi and are unable to fathom its wonderful complexities. Of course, many will argue that such an overarching statement is too limiting, but there is certainly some unfortunate truth to this popular perception.

In a conversation once, playwright and filmmaker, Neil La Bute picked up a glass of water, and noted, “this can be art because you made it, or it can be a glass of water to me, and I can think you’re an absolute loon for calling it art, and we could both be right.” This approachable thought process is perhaps the best way to think about art and the processes around it.

Indeed, while it is often overwhelming to come to terms with the mammoth list of work, which stretches from your local arts and crafts fair to the Guggenheim, it is worth taking on board these few of tips.

Art Is Not Only For MuseumsA tall building in a city

Despite the notion that significant artwork must be displayed in an institutional context, the reality is that the world around us is bursting with various creative ventures. Architecture for instance is considered one of the most influential, and accessible art forms out there. Historically speaking, pioneers from Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry have helped transform traditional building sites into debatable talking points. While at other times, architects and sculptors have blurred the boundaries between structural design and installation work, with Richard Wilson’s Turning the Place Over, serving as a prime example. Here, the exterior of a building (which rests on a pivot) rotates revealing the contents inside, a remarkable feat.

Beyond this, it is worth considering how much artistry imbues our daily lives. Of all things, popular culture is teeming with artistic credos. From the elaborately choreographed dance routines on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance to the plethora of music videos available online, and on music channels – ‘art’ is constantly at play. Certainly, many music video makers tend to see themselves as creative practitioners first and foremost, with Spike Jonze, David La Chapelle, Hype Williams, Michel Gondry, and Ray Kay being just a few examples.

The same can be said of advertising of course, and of cinema. A Filmmaker like Miranda July is renowned for her interactive, and welcoming performance work. One of her notable interactive works is the web project, Learning To Love You More, which encourages members of the public to partake in ritualistic tasks, and send in their results – with some of the displays ultimately showing up in galleries, and other notable public spaces. The same can be said of Julian Schnabel, Rebecca Miller who both first received critical acclaim because of their painting.

Finally, there is a lot to be said about musicians and their influence on public awareness. In the late seventies, the entire punk music scene from Malcolm McClaren’s Sex Pistols to The New York Dolls to Patti Smith were all forming a part of a greater cultural phenomenon that superseded a limitation as stifling as a ‘medium’ of dissemination. Photographers, painters, musicians, and designers all formed part of a milieu that was ironic and self-referential – blurring boundaries between subcultures and the popular landscape. Now infamous photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe were shooting album covers for friends, and the designer Vivienne Westwood, helped develop her reputation by bringing the gender-bending clothing of the underground to the forefront of the fashion landscape.

From there on, the spiral continued. Fashion magazines became a place for musicians and artists to cut their teeth, creating work that challenged the status quo. Of these, special note goes to Barbara Kruger, a former fashion photographer, who gradually started to dissect the capitalist realm that she was working in, mutilating imagery, and creating concepts that were thought provoking, but accessible.

Graphic design

So, the next time someone starts to quiz you about your limited art knowledge, instead of pleading ignorance – you can start relaying your favorite choices, from the accessible art forms around you. Graphic designers, musicians, writers, and filmmakers are all viable examples to put forward here.

Be Open

Andrew Graham-Dixon in the introduction to the giant manual, ‘ART’ notes that a person who is “aesthetically and intellectually inquiring,” “a person who is curious, tolerant, and has a historical imagination” is far more likely to get ‘something’ out of art than someone who is unwilling to open up their mind.

Especially in an age, where artistic constructs are malleable, or indeed ‘abstract,’ this should certainly be the case. Theo Van Doesburg speaking about abstract art once noted that “art has no significance other than itself,” “not to the physical world,” for in other words, it is there for us to make what we want of it. As such, if art is there for us to make what we will out of it, than why are so many of us shutting ourselves off, proclaiming it something that only a small minority can appreciate? Surely, the greater the dialogue, the more likely it is for a piece of work to expand beyond its limitations – to ‘mean’ something else. Like music, film, or even political candidates, the sum of parts is able to change the significance of the ‘whole.’

Persistence of memory

Create Your Niche

Now, my hope is that by this point you will be excited about delving into the world of art in some way. But how do you get started? Well naturally, there are your local art galleries and exhibitions, arts magazines, and comprehensive art anthologies, which are simple and informative. However, even the most influential taste brokers, have their niche (that is, the things that appeal to them). Certainly, one can ‘appreciate’ lots of work, without ever having to like it.

My advice here is to know the basics, and the classics, and then to set out to define your area of interest, or your strong hold. For example, if you are a fan of Salvador Dali’s early work, you might want to start looking at other artists working as part of the same movement. For instance, Dali’s initial workings were influenced by the Cubist movement, which was a style that saw traditional items fragmented and subsequently reassembled, in an abstracted form. As such, you may be interested to look into other respected artists influenced by Cubism, such as Gustav Klimt, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, and of course, Pablo Picasso.

If this doesn’t float your boat, then don’t shut down yet. There have been so many exciting movements from Dadaism (rejecting the bourgeoisie), to Pop Art to New Realism. And of course art isn’t just about splaying paint on canvas, remember, it encompasses installation, video, architecture, online platforms, and pretty much everything else in between.

So, the next time you start to panic about your lack of knowledge, just remember that you are probably in a privileged position – as there is so much more exciting exploring left for you to do!

Omar Kholeif

Omar is a writer and film curator based in between Glasgow & Liverpool, UK. He is also a Contributing Editor to Primer Magazine. Please visit:, for more information.