Popular reactions to art

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A few months back, the touring Leonardo Da Vinci reproduction exhibition “Opera Omnia” made a stop in Kuala Lumpur. Whilst obviously not the originals, 17 decent reproductions were made on transparent canvas and backlit to simulate the experience of viewing a well-lit painting as closely as possible. I say ‘decent’ because the method was quite clever, but close up some of the the reproductions clearly lacked the print resolution required to really capture the subtlety of the originals – both Da Vinci’s own extremely fine brushstrokes on areas such as hair, but also the ageing and craquelure that’s a large part of the experience. Obviously, the “3D-ness” of real paint were not reproduced, though I suspect with a little less diffusion on the light used for the initial reproduction, some shadows of surface texture might have been captured. Interestingly, even behind barriers, glass, and at a greater distance – the originals somehow feel much more textural than the reproductions. But I digress – this is not so much about the reproduction method as more general commentary on the public and the way art is seen/appreciated/interpreted in general.

We need to firstly give credit to the Italian embassy for undertaking the exercise at all – even with reproductions, this is not a trivial undertaking, especially considering The Last Supper was printed full size and seamlessly on a single piece of media – a whopping 4.6×8.8m. On the whole, it was well presented and well executed, especially given the limited number of works actually completed by the artist. Furthermore, the exhibition has gone to a lot of cities without a strong existing art or cultural background, enabling a cross section of the population to appreciate it whom might not otherwise have had the chance. And even then, the works are spread sufficiently distantly that they’re not easy to view even for somebody with the time and inclination, much less a casual tourist.

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I think these are not easy works to appreciate; they lack the instant punch that something in vivid colours and grand scale might have. It’s important to remember that the originals are now half a millennium old, and frankly – there is no way to know how the originals looked, and how much age has both diminished the original and created the current patinated object. In short – in common memory, the paintings have always looked old. For the average viewer, they might notice a certain consistent tonal palette tending towards the warm and pastel, but with rich shadows, and the odd sensation of fuzziness or smoothness (“sfumato”) juxtaposed against areas of acutely realistic detail (individual hairs out of place, the way leaves in shadow are rendered, or musculature hinted at under skin, for instance). The overall impression is one of controlled, almost airbrushed perfection mated with just enough cues to suggest reality. This is probably heretical, but modern fashion spreads come to mind – an idealised presentation of an idea (or personality) rather than a physical individual.

But – you have to really stop and look observantly to see any of this. And the sad thing is, most of the people stop long enough to take a picture with their phones to look at later (why?!) or a selfie (ugh) – and move on to the next painting. Judging by facial expressions and time spent per painting – perhaps 1-2% of the audience really looked. The rest probably couldn’t figure out what the big deal was, and went back for another selfie with the Mona Lisa (conveniently placed near the entrance, leaving the reproductions of his notebooks with theories of geometry and flight blissfully empty at the back).

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We first went on a Sunday morning at opening, and the gallery was packed – I doubt the National Art Gallery here saw that many visitors in the entire preceding month as that single morning. It was impossible to actually see the paintings without either obstructing or being obstructed; much like the originals in their respective galleries. (What I’ll never understand though is the Malaysian penchant for poking the artwork – why? I’ve had the same problem at every one of my exhibitions, with inevitable surface damage from sticky/oily/careless fingers. Art does not give consent, therefore the answer is always “no touching!”). Visiting midweek proved no better – but the cross section of society was different, being mostly professionals and families on the weekend and retirees and school groups during the week. Admirably, the school groups were actually “convinced” to spend some time studying the paintings through being asked to sketch their impressions – which is better than the retirees, who turned out to be the worst surface-pokers of the lot. And almost nobody read the captions or contextual information presented together.

This leads to a greater question of whether what are considered the great classical works of art are too esoteric and require too much education for the average person to appreciate. How much of their veneration is down to the hype and surrounding media circus, and how much down to actual recognition of inherent qualities? Put another way: other than The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, it’s debatable whether any of the works would have been recognised outside the exhibition by not just our local crowd (remember: Christianity and its icons are not really taught or well known in a Muslim society), but even a less culturally distant one. Perhaps this has always been the case and I’ve just noticed, but it seems mass hype (now driven by social media, instead of the newspapers etc. of the past) applies to pretty much everything from cameras to watches to cars to art. The greater populace seems more willing to accept what they’re told on the basis of “expert” opinion, rather than being objective. Ironically, this is even more important with anything that’s heavily subjective; just as nobody else can say whether product xyz works for your circumstances and needs, nobody can tell you whether you like a piece of art or not.

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But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to fight the tide – either you succumb to the hype, create your own hype, or are going to find it exponentially difficult to be unconventional because there’s suddenly not just no support, but actively projected negativity. And you can bet whatever dollars you wish that the mass-averaged product isn’t going to be the best one – it’s just going to be the one that’s easiest to sell. To most, Da Vinci is famous because his paintings are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and they’re worth millions of dollars because he’s famous – not because he mastered both technique and understanding of subject in an age where most science was either nonexistent or considered witchcraft. Worse, the sums talked about are so vast that they’re incomprehensible in a third world country where costs of living spiral hand in hand with consumer debt (admittedly, abstraction of value might make it easier to assess a picture based on inherent qualities other than monetary value). But the one thing that is relatively accessible and easily available is knowledge – there’s no reason for ignorance because you’re poor. But it is ignorance that keeps you poor.

It’s clear that with a bit of knowledge or trying to imagine painting one of those pictures for yourself, even with modern techniques and technology, it’s doubtful we could do a “better” – or even more aesthetically pleasing – job today; this is what makes him a master for the ages. Perhaps not everybody will understand, but hopefully accessibility to knowledge means more will – before we lose appreciation for art and its aspirational drive for us to create. MT


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  1. Thank you for the great photos in this article Ming Thein. I personally prefer this type. Anyway years ago I read in the Readers Digest about ” Guerilla kindness and Random acts of beauty”. Which set me thinking that some of the sense of education got lost because we don’t effectively encourage beautiful creation as equally essential to human existence and growth. We educate history rather than the future. Communities don’t encourage and support art in practical terms because of the short term views on efficiency and buying and selling everything including your soul. Remember the words in the Mickey Newbury song that went like this ” How many times must the piper be paid for his song?” Do we even remember the questions anymore and where are you a part of it all?

    • Fully agreed! It is impossible to teach creativity, but it can certainly be encouraged – and most education systems do nothing to do this.

  2. I too got the chance to visit an Opera Omnia exhibition in Bangkok a couple of years ago. That time it was Caravaggio being put on display and I observed a very similar behaviour from the attendees. But what was “shocking” to me at the time was a comment in the media from a well-off local socialite who criticized the exhibition for degrading Caravaggio’s work by turning it into something similar to bus-stop prints. Yes these are reproductions, but to see the real works of art, one would need to visit several cities and countries, not to mention the fact that some of the originals are high up on church walls…

    At the same time, I do think that the medium being used can somewhat transform the original piece of art or at least create a different kind of experience. For me personally, what caught my interest was also the way light coming out of the paintings was reflected on the gallery’s smooth, polished floor, like reflections in a body of water, which in a way amplified the transient nature of the viewers in contrast to the permanence of the images displayed on the wall.

  3. I wonder if the trend in photography to create eye popping images that the viewer can digest in 3 seconds or less has helped further the demise of fine art appreciation?

  4. Caveat: I admit to not being a trained artist, but a 70+ old man who got interested in photography from technical curiosity as a child,
    and continued the hobby to where I now want to make better pictures. More artistic.
    I harbor a distrust of ‘trained vision’, (expert = someone who knows more and more about less and less to where they know everything about nothing).
    Surely the measure of ‘good’ art is its transcendence of academic notion to appeal to the visceral.
    My scepticism is exemplified by the ‘rule_of_thirds’; it’s a tool, not a rule, but becomes a rule for people to clutch when they need to justify opinion.
    Likewise with other principles. School me.
    Having said that, I do enjoy learning some of the tools artists use, patting myself on the back when I recognize their use,
    and admiring the artist for their cleverness.
    I can look at an old car, admire the craftsmanship that went into making it with the limited technology of its era, but I don;t think it’s a better car.

    • You’ll get no disagreement from me: art needs to share a different point of view to make an impact. If everything is framed by thirds (for example) – this isn’t different…

      As for ‘better’ – with art or cars – it depends on what criteria you are judging by…

  5. William says:

    Don’t be too harsh on how Malaysians react to art. Your article reminded me of a pre-Covid visit to the Louvre in Paris. At the urging of those with me, I followed the throngs making a beeline for the Mona Lisa. I wasn’t really keen as I never like the painting. “But you have to go” I was told. And go I did. There were 2 huge surprises in wait when I got there – the actual painting was so tiny, and there was a sea of heads, arms and mobile phones held aloft separating me from the painting. I didn’t bother fighting my way to the front to get a closer look. I took out my camera, and took a picture of the sea of heads, arms and mobile phones, with a glass encased Mona Lisa in the distant background. Always a wry smile when I look back and see that photo.

    • Except in this case…there wasn’t a sea of phones and arms and heads, and you could easily have the painting to yourself if you waited five minutes for somebody to selfie and move on. Most didn’t, which is telling.

  6. If I look back through your post, the lack of interest in the art, the poking at it, the selfies instead of study, I think most, if not all, are because the quality of education offered in most developed countries has been declining steadily for decades.
    Schools and classes are large, and the students are processed as in some sort of factory. Get them just good enough to keep pushing them through, and then they’re somebody else’s problem. Not that long ago, before I retired, I worked in a large repair shop with people who had 12 years of education, and were almost illiterate. People in that state don’t read books, they talk about sports, drinking, their new, heavily financed car, etc. A good percentage are getting into financial difficulty because our wonderful educational system doesn’t even teach them how a mortgage works. They listen to podcasts because it’s easier.
    Most of them wouldn’t go to that exhibit, never mind try to get something out of it.
    If we want the future to brighten up a bit, we have to start spending more, (effectively and wisely), on good education, instead of it becoming almost elite, a situation which would continue to broaden the gap between the wealthy and the poor.

    • Pretty much – education has become about increasing metrics/KPIs for some people’s bonuses or retained political power rather than actually producing useful members of society. Art doesn’t contribute to any of that in a quantitative way, yet society wonders why creativity is in such short supply. Hell, forget creativity…as you rightly point out, you aren’t even taught the basics of being an adult – that’s your family or society’s job – the rest is mostly useless crap to occupy you for 15 years. Even elite education doesn’t address a lot of this…it merely extracts as much money from you as possible.

  7. Graham Wood says:

    Ming, I can truly recommend the taschen Leonardo book. Reasonable reproductions of everything. Makes good prep for the real thing. For what its worth I generally go to a gallery to see a specific work or group of works and try to do some homework first. Which I guess means I will never go to the louvre to see the mona lisa. When I go to look at something I usually want well over a quarter hour with each peice.

  8. Paul Rodden says:

    Good points. Love the chiaroscuro photos. So apt. 💙

  9. I dislike crowded galleries and museums because I can never find quiet time to read the captions and to study / admire the art. I was horrified to read that people poke at the art. There are usually barriers that discourage this along with gallery staff. But I’m sure that’s hard when the galleries are packed.

  10. Hey Ming,

    What exactly do you mean by “But it is ignorance that keeps you poor”?

    Is “poor” in this context a non-literal turn of phrase or is it literally just “poor?” Because I would have a quite serious disagreement with the idea that poverty is the result of lack of knowledge or existence of ignorance, much in the same way that wealth is in no way indicative of intelligence or wisdom. People are not poor because they’re stupid or ignorant; they are poor because that is how the system is designed (in most – read: capitalist or similar – countries).

    If you meant it differently, then I apologize and ignore the above!

    • Mentally poor, in this case: if you don’t as the question, you won’t receive the knowledge from the answer…

    • stanis 42 says:

      In 1813 when Denmark went bust as a result of participation in war on Frances side, King Frederik 6 introduced reforms, between others of educational system, supporting the culture and schools, saying to the objectors – indeed we are poor, but that doesn`t mean we have to be ignorant .

  11. Hi Ming,
    As always, your posts are lacking in Fluff’. LOL! I come out of them, not quite sure where I’ve been taken and what the last stop really is. Quite good and fun. I love an adventure! And the chance to burn some grey/gray matter and replace it with fresh, is always welcome.
    Art, and appreciation there of, is so impossibly broad and further painted by so many individual and societal factors – as you noted about the cultural differences of KL to , say, any European city and then any other place. Art, as seen and considered, is very factored by where each of us is, in our own development. I’m different now than I was 50 years ago; and see things differently from even just a few days ago. Understanding and appreciation is way different and separate from Like/Dislike.
    To me, Like /Dislike can be a very superficial evaluation or it can be the result of some deeper understanding or appreciation of what went into the work (of anything). Painted canvas, sculpture, photographs are more than “I don;t know art, but I know what I like!”.
    If any art is taken on a level of fashion, or response to the general social tenor like ‘Da Vinci is in town, Gotta go see” , that’s ok, not their cuppa… Art is not for everyone, important. If, however, someone, especially over time, makes the effort to understand what the art is about, what goes into it, and how it expresses – and then decides (if they must or wish to) Like or dislike; then that has some value.
    Understanding and appreciation eventually over-come the need to like, or more importantly, dislike any ‘art’. It’s like anything and everything else, if you don;t understand even some small fraction of something, then ‘Dislike’ becomes an easy way to dismiss or even allow stronger negative emotion… sortta like religion…
    Thanks for a very adventurous thought train – I’m still not sure where I want to get off.
    Jurij – BTW, luv the images in your post…

    • There’s way too much inconsequential fluff online as it is – I don’t want to be guilty of adding to it!

      Yes, art is relative, and this is important: each person has their own opinions, preferences and biases formed on the basis of their experiences. You can’t change this and in a way one’s reactions to art as as much baked into a person as their DNA.

      At the very least – even if provoked to action by popularism – people should go see as much as they can with an open mind; it’s the only way to figure out if you like something or not. There is no downside…at worst, you can rule some things out…at best, you find something new to enjoy.

  12. Maybe part of this is that many people who go to an art gallery or exhibition are doing it for “something to do”, are not trained artists, and therefore don’t really know what they are “supposed to be” looking for

    I went to a (very good) retrospective exhibition of Saul Leiter’s work – including some of his paintings and sketches – in Tokyo about two or three months back (before absolutely everything got cancelled). My impression is that the Japanese tend to take more time than most in looking at the exhibits, as well as frequently using audio guides, referring to the explanatory notes posted next to the works, etc. Whereas (personally) I tend to ignore the exposition and usually decide pretty quickly if I’m going to spend some time looking over an exhibit or not. If it grabs me instantly, I’ll stay and look at it for as long as I feel like, otherwise I’ll give it a cursory glance and move on. I have no formal artistic training, but at the very least I’ll try and identify why I like a picture (good composition, use of colour, the actual content of the picture, etc).

    Referring back to the point I made about many people not knowing what they “should” be looking at (or, as you phrased it, “The greater populace seems more willing to accept what they’re told on the basis of “expert” opinion, rather than being objective”), this could also be part of the reason why cynical but skilled writers / artists can get away with the pretentious rubbish they write about contemporary art (if you haven’t seen it already, look up artybollocks.com; it’s satire, but seeing what people really write about art, it’s not far off the truth).

    I do remember reading about an experiment which was set up in a museum. A series of works by modern British artists like Damien Hurst were placed in the same area as Millais’ “Ophelia” and hidden cameras recorded how long visitors spent looking at each piece. I don’t remember the precise details, but people spent a considerably longer period of time looking at the Millais; by some accounts the “modern” stuff merited an average of five seconds of attention. So there’s still some evidence that people recognise quality and/or are not duped by the wordsmiths…

    That being said, in the end it probably comes down to being honest with oneself: if you don’t like a piece of art, then admit it; if you think that the “artist’s statement” is nonsense, then say so; and if you do like something, don’t back down!

    • I suspect you’re right on the first part – people go because they’re told to. I’m much like you: I make up my own mind about whether an exhibition is interesting to me or not; art doesn’t and doesn’t have to speak to everybody. But this if course assumes you know yourself, which itself requires serious introspection and is a huge ask for most…


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