A woman in an art gallery stands looking at an artwork composed of 20 or so square textile panels
A visitor views ‘Ode à l’Oubli’ (2004) at the exhibition ‘Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child’ at the Hayward Gallery, London © Mark Blower

At a dinner party last weekend, the conversation inevitably turns to the cultural happenings around the city on which we can pronounce. Exhibitions, books and films are all parsed around the table. Who was lucky enough to catch Francis Bacon’s Man and Beast while it was on at the Royal Academy? Has anybody been to Surrealism Beyond Borders at the Tate?

Most things are discussed without a murmur of contradiction, but when it comes to the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Hayward, the lone teenager at the party offers a rare demur. A curation of Bourgeois’ later work, created when she was in her eighties and nineties, The Woven Child looks at the textiles, figurative sculptures and clothes the French artist incorporated into her work. The teenager is unimpressed with Bourgeois’ stuffed torsos and monumental sculptures. Seeing it with her art class, she was indifferent to its power. “The work had no application that might be useful in my practice,” is her verdict, or something like it. “Why would anyone think I would look at the work of an old woman and be expected to relate?”

For this visitor, Bourgeois’ life-long mediations on the theme of identity, emancipation, sexual malevolence and entrapment were all irrelevant because her ancient bony fingers failed to communicate any vision for the youth. It’s an opinion I endured with grinding irritation, before reminding myself that teenagers must be allowed to be solipsistic and contrary, and wondering whether I too seek to “relate” to works of art.

I hope not. Although sometimes I do wonder what I look for in an exhibition, except to sit around the table and tell other people what I’ve seen. Or whether I enjoyed that book, and was it better than his first one? Or did I like that movie, and wasn’t it the best she’s ever been?

Do I watch things simply to have an opinion I can share at dinner parties? Or partake in popular culture to reinforce a set of well-established views? I would hope I was looking for something deeper. But sometimes, it feels like we’re all looking for the same basic threads through which we can connect.

What do we look for in a work of art? When I asked my own household solipsist, she told me she looked for some kind of empathy and then an emotional release. She sees art as an agent of catharsis, which I guess means she also looks for relatability as well.

A woman wearing fishnet tights and bra writhes on the flame-painted bonnet of a car
The French horror film ‘Titane’ — ‘I abandoned it after 20 minutes, but as a gasper it made the grade’

Years ago a friend told me that when it came to any work of art, she looked for something “tender”, which sounds like a secular way of saying something that touched the soul. Many of us seek exultation, something that stirs us unexpectedly, others hope to feel a different way. My husband looks for a sense of “surprise” and something that will shake his worldview. A colleague goes even further when she says “I want [art] to change my mind.” 

To look for something so big as a paradigm shift in one’s outlook seems an enormous ask. But I admire anyone who sets out ready to be challenged and approaches new things with an open heart. If all you’re looking for is self-reflection then get a mirror, after all. Art is the opportunity to have your optics ambushed; it should open doors to different worlds.

“My criteria for liking anything actually, in the arts, in people, in things, is gasping,” said the actor Alan Cumming while listing off his favourite records in an interview last month. “If something makes me gasp . . . You’ve made me have an experience. My body has had this unwitting visceral reaction. Even things I don’t like that I’m gasping at, you’ve made me feel alive.”

The search for the unusual is maybe something that comes with age. When one feels bludgeoned by indifference, it’s a thrill when something stirs. I’m still recovering from seeing Titane, the French horror in which the main protagonist has a violent sexual relationship with a car. So much engine oil and bruising was absolutely dreadful, and I abandoned it after only 20 minutes, but as a gasper it certainly made the grade. Likewise, as fashion critic on this paper, I would sometimes see things modelled on to the catwalk that I found, at first, repulsive. But I far preferred seeing something hateful and provocative that might stand out in the long parade of asinine.

Rhian Teasdale of Wet Leg sings and plays guitar on stage; behind her, bandmate Hester Chambers plays guitar
Wet Leg — heralded as this year’s buzziest indie band — on stage in Cardiff this month © Redferns

Not every artist wants to push buttons. And some artists would be mortified to find their intention being considered a “thing”. Another interview, in the New Yorker last week, found Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers of the band Wet Leg being heralded as this year’s buzziest indie pop stars, but the Isle of Wight twentysomethings recoiled from all discussions of their “practice” with squirming irony and lols. “It doesn’t really mean anything,” said Teasdale of the band’s unusual name. “It’s just a reminder to not take yourself too seriously, because, at the end of the day, you’re in a band called Wet Leg.”

Maybe we take art too seriously. Or expect it to do too much. “It came out of that 13-year-old girl sleepover head space,” said Teasdale of the thinking behind the songwriting on their debut album, described in the New Yorker as being “gloriously light”. By contrast, Louise Bourgeois was very definitely heavy, and deadly serious to boot. But I like to think that, even in her nineties, she was mining the same teenage headspace, too. And while her own peculiarly spooky introspection was disturbing, she had a twisted humour you could relate to — and gasp at — at any age.

What do you look for in a work of art? Share your thoughts in the comments below

Email Jo at jo.ellison@ft.com

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