I remember it well. It was a cold January day in Chicago and my friend and I decided to trek out through the snow to visit the Modern Art Museum.

I’d been countless times before, and was eager to see the new photography exhibit, which dealt with voyeurs, and included a series of disturbing photographs, many of which implied the photographer was stalking the subjects.

In one crude series, the artist photographed a man standing on the street waiting for a bus. The man subsequently had a heart attack, and the artist documented the entire process of him collapsing, a crowd gathering, and paramedics arriving on scene to attempt to revive the man, but ultimately remove the cadaver.

To place yourself in the eye of the behold was disturbing, to say the least.

Another example we encountered on that cold January day didn’t even appear to be art at all. In the center of the museum, just outside one of the main exhibit areas, was a couple passionately embracing and kissing.

Not a simple peck on the cheek, but full-fledged making out. My friend and I exchanged glances and continued in to the exhibition. A few minutes later, however, we noticed the same couple still making out, but now they were rolling on the floor passionately.

What do you do? Do you notify security? SWalk by and pretend nothing is amiss, or stare and watch?

After a moment, we realized that this was an installation, and the couple was two actors hired for the performance.

The question is clear: how does one approach modern art? What can the lay person, the average individual who can’t speak for hours opn end about the avant-garde scene, appreciate the work?

Art Is What You Make It

After years of struggling with this question, I have arrived at a simple answer: art is what you make it.

There isn’t an appropriate response. The appropriate response is your natural reaction to the piece. Notice how it impacts you, whether or not you’re emotionally affected and, if so, how.

I think much of the shock and awe that goes on with modern art is really a commentary on how passive we’ve become when we trudge through museums.

We stop and stare at a painting, looking at…what, exactly? Some of these more active works, like the two mention above, achieve one of Art’s main purposes: they each make us seriously question fundamental beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world around us.

Isn’t that what art’s all about, after all?