Janet Echelman’s TED talk touched me at many levels. As an artist and an engineer seeking to reconcile my passions. As an entrepreneur and art advocate seeking to expand art appeal to new audiences. And as a human being seeking inspiration and awe.
I was particularly stirred by the tale of the Phoenix lawyer who had never set foot in an art museum, and rallied her colleagues to lie underneath Janet’s sculpture to share the glee and rediscovery of wonder. Wow, what a gift and life expanding experience! It prompted me to write this post.
Like the aforementioned lawyer, the number of people who live their lives thinking they don’t like art bewilders me. In fact the question consumes me so much that I’ve taken to asking it to everyone I meet. Occasionally I discover another art lover, but more often than not the reaction is befuddlement. People tell me they don’t like art, or are too busy for it. One tech CEO even told me he hated art. (I felt sorry for him).
Probing further though, I often discover that the same people enjoy music, dancing or photography. But anything that has to do with entering a so-called art establishment, they find unappealing.
If there is a glass ceiling in business, there is also a “glass wall” separating artists and art cognoscenti from non-art goers. To many, the barrier comes from incomprehension. Art appears opaque and intimidating. They find art museums and theaters especially daunting. Program notes and audio guides are insufficient to bridge the gap. And docents, too quick to show off their MFAs, makes them feel ignorant (or so I was told).
Breaking the Glass Wall
This is why Janet’s work is so important. It bridges the divide and broadens art’s reach. Through the years, Janet has engaged and attracted masses of people to experience and share art’s wonders — from engineers and lawyers, to fishermen and passers-by, across fields and continents.
Wow. I can’t help but feel wonderment at these enormous billowing sculptures, suspended in the air, gently moving in the wind, braving gravity like weightless dancers.
I expect her sculptures would appeal to some of the people who told me they disliked art. Engineers will recognize and appreciate the science in her artwork and feel a connection. Entrepreneurs and innovators will identify with the hardships, persistence, and hard work needed to achieve breakthrough innovations; they too will feel a connection.
Janet’s work is both approachable and spellbinding. Her tantalizing meshes, an invitation to let ourselves be absorbed into a wondrous world, where gargantuan sculptures hang in the sky like convoluted rainbows. She reconnects us with our universal need and capacity to wonder.
Her sculptures are living proof that castles in the sky are realizable. In some magical ways, they remind us that we too can break free of our limits.
Cultivating Artistic Passions
This is why art matters. It connects us with our humanity and capacity to marvel. It expands our vision, and fuels our imagination.
Each and every one of us has the ability to be touched by art, because we carry the seed inside us. As Pablo Picasso said: “All children are born artists. The challenge is to remain one as we grow up.” Let us not neglect our artistic gift, as we become adults. Great art inspires and kindles our artistic sensibility.
Janet’s video is bound to inspire many people the world over. She is also a wonderful example of an artist crossing over disciplines and barriers, and appealing to a wide audience. The challenge remains to breach the glass walls constraining the art world, and make art accessible at ever-larger scales.
Broadening art appeal has a parallel with the wine industry. Like art, wine used to be enjoyed by the cognoscenti alone. Napa Valley’s success lay in breaking wine’s own glass wall, and making wine accessible and enjoyable to everyone. In so doing, they significantly expanded wine appeal and consumption — while still producing high end wines. The art world needs a similar invigoration, to benefit both artists and consumers. For the wider public, to expand our artistic appreciation, and for art institutions, to create the income they badly need.
Image credits: Janet Echelman.
This article was originally published in TED Weekends & The Huffington Post.