Art has the power to influence entire generations and entire cultures. This usually happens subtly and is only picked up when a future generation looks back in haughty comparison. But the easiest way to observe art’s influence is incredibly simple – reflect upon your own life and ask yourself what pieces of art have arrested, charmed, disturbed, or helped you?
Keith Haring (1958-1990)
In primary school, an art teacher headed a group of older students who would paint large murals around the school. Often these would be direct copies or be in the style of other artists (though at the time, and at the age of eight, I did not know this). There was one mural in particular that I really, really liked. There wasn’t anything else to it—something in the bold black lines, the simple colours, the excited faceless people, was something that eight-year-old me simply loved staring at.
I skilfully relocated my group of friends to a different lunch spot so that I could eat lunch near the painting everyday. The painting was one that would become ingrained in my mind and later in life I would learn all about the original artist—I read his journals, learnt about his philosophy towards art and life, his importance in the pop art scene and his battles with AIDS. Learning about Keith Haring changed how I think of art, but it was his art and his art alone—a pure visual image that won over an eight-year-old girl, that made me ever want to care about art at all.
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Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)
As silly it may seem, this painting was what consoled me best after my first breakup. I bought a cheap book on art in 2012 when I was on a bus to Christchurch after spending summer visiting a boy in Nelson, a boy that would soon “break my heart”, which is about the most epic tragedy a 19-year-old can have. He had revealed he had been kissing another girl, and the teary teenager that I was broke up with him instantaneously.
Shortly after this devastating event, flicking through the very book I’d bought while visiting him, I came across a painting that left me lingering. With fresh betrayal and heartbreak still prickling my eyes, there was something in the cool, smug smile and gaze of the woman that made me feel surprisingly better. In her eyes was a welcoming confidence that said I need not be sad over a trivial boy, who was as good as a head on a plate.
Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)
When I was a young child I saw a Piet Mondrian painting for the first time on an episode of Arthur. Later, I would see it again on the first The Sims. Like Keith Haring’s painting, I didn’t know the name of the artist or the painting’s context until much later, but I had already given the painting my own meaning. I knew that the piece was famous and likely worth a lot of money—it was good enough for television and computer games, after all! And I also knew that it was utterly simple, thus becoming for me became the visual epitome of modern art pieces that seem silly and could be recreated by anyone and yet still be worth millions and millions.
This was how Mondrian became a reference point in my life—my interpretation of the painting was that you don’t necessarily need refined skill or have to work super hard: if you can offer a point of difference that is strong enough, then you can get by with creativity and wit alone. Whether or not this is a good life philosophy to have, I am still finding out. And whether or not Mondrian would appreciate this interpretation, I am sure he appreciated having people paying millions for a few squares of primary colour.