Words have their history. Some words get eaten by history: they are chewed up until they become meaningless. Some words are dispersed by history: they begin to acquire haphazard meanings. In both cases, it is difficult to use the words for any significant reference because the meanings keep vanishing. A truly good example of this is the word 'beautiful'.
The word fails to have any meaning other than that given by the user. It has ceased to have a common reference since it now means something the user personally likes. What is shocking, though, is the fact that 'beautiful' originally meant the apt and mutual manner in which we, human beings, understood the world. 'Beautiful' could be seen; understood by concepts and discussed using words. Therefore, understanding the world is now critically endangered - we no longer have a mutual word to this end.
From the perspective of evaluating art, the above- mentioned has become a true stumbling block. Previously we were able to discuss a work of art by talking about its beauty: how beautiful it was and how, for example, it failed to be beautiful. Generally, everybody understood each other's opinion. Everyone could see: what you saw you trusted and on the basis of that, you made the evaluation. 'Beautiful' became virtually interchangeable with 'good': a valuable and good subject yielded a beautiful result.
In those days when we were still able to talk about beauty and ugliness, we talked of how things appeared to us in art: we pondered whether art was truthful, or morally good, or if art had succeeded in creating a new code of depiction. 'Beautiful' meant that we answered positively to all these questions. 'Ugly' meant that the work was bad and failed to realise its task in revealing the world. Our eyes could detect this since they were educated to do so.
How about now? Who would have the courage to make an evaluation of a work and use the word 'beautiful'? Or to join in a conversation with someone who uses that word? The worst of it is that we also find ourselves almost entirely devoid of other concepts to be employed in a conversation.
Instead, we have the 'historical perspectives', lists of -isms, we are wallowing in strange technical terms provided for us by the professionals. In other words, only a few are equipped to follow a conversation about art, and fewer still are able to comprehend what is being said. What is sad, though, is that this professional elaboration cannot wipe out the problem: we lack a new, mutual frame of reference which we could share when we discuss art.
Thus we view pictures, bits and pieces put together ('installations') and video foolery, we look at works with a feeling of unhappiness since we have no way to talk about them. They are not beautiful - true. But they are not ugly either. They are not always insignificant. What are they then?
When we face a work of art we fail to trust our eyes. We try to dig up something from our minds, some kind of connection to give a meaning to the work so that we can understand it, or even in order for it to become distinguishable. We try to provide the work with a connection, intellectual or semantic. Yet most often we find theories, non-art issues, technology, psychology or straightforward everyday issues which we cannot mould into something important, in order to bring something new or take something old away. Often we are left with a deep confusion, a confusion too barren to allow anything to spring from it.
When someone tries to instruct us to 'watch' art or to 'discuss' art, the alienation is likewise acutely felt. As if nothing could really touch us. Even when we are given permission to say and experience whatever we like, we feel pretentious, like liars, as if we are praising emperor's new, non-existent clothes.
But neither are artists unaffected. Many are as confused as we are. There are therefore grounds for thinking that the reason for this confusion is more general in nature. Maybe the reason is in the world itself.
Considering that art is about people's relationship with the world, in other words interpreting it, adding to it, commenting on it, it must be the world's fault that this relationship has altered, and that it has become an issue which is hard to share and discuss. It may well be that 'beautiful' as a category for thought is simply exhausted. It cannot be shared even if one wants to: all that is 'beautiful' is more like kitsch, a standing jest, entertainment, a travesty. An attempt to talk in a new way is needed to replace 'beautiful'.
When we look at a work of contemporary art, we no longer exist in a closed world. There is more than just the work and a viewer. There are all those theories which have altered our concepts of the world, including political, economic and scientific ideas. There is also the dead god and the people who have replaced him: theorists who have messed up and reduced to the commonplace all which was supposed to be clear and perfect. There are art theorists, art critics, teachers and instructors who also want to be in on the act. In this mixed milieu we watch the work of art without actually knowing in which context we should view it.
This new situation cannot be avoided: we are already in it. We can, however, remind ourselves that the only way to be in immediate contact with a work is make use of our sensory impressions. Our eyes, hands, noses, and sometimes even tongues provide an immediate contact with the work. Immediate contact is often obscured by all these bystanders, albeit their presence cannot deprive us of the immediateness of sensory impressions.
No matter how much information, how many ideas and ideologies we posses, the world remains strong and aggressive. You can enter into a dialogue with a work of art by practising seeing and active viewing. Since other issues cannot be completely ruled out, they have to be tested: is this or that issue meaningful with regard to what I'm experiencing? Do I really see something or am I made to see?
The sensory properties of a human being are powerful. Many miracles are real because they have been witnessed by eyes. Similarly senses - eyes, ears, hands, tongues - can break the numbing wall of habit and indoctrination, and allow one to get near the work and thus near to the world revealed by the creator of it.
Moreover, our eyes reveal better than any other means whether the emperor has new clothes or whether the work is merely a demagogue in disguise.