A man a young girl sit in a coffee shop discussing the meanings of art. The man is a part-time teacher at an all-girls private school; a position reserved only for those with the right connections or for someone with the right amount of luck and the perfect resume. The young girl is one his students. She wanted to talk to his teacher because she will be visiting Europe in the summer and she wanted some advice on how to capture the right pictures with her new camera. 
             “Do not think of art as deceiving, nor simply as a way for the artist to portray beauty,” said the man in a calmed tone. “You’ll soon find out that the artist will not simply be interested in aesthetics, or what others might refer to as beautiful. Beauty is nothing more than a physical sensation. The good artists will try to present their work in the form of a question, not just visually, of course, but in other ways as well. Others will present theirs as if it were a puzzle for the viewer to decipher.”
             “Wait,” the young girl interrupted. “So, does this mean that the point behind art is to give the viewer something to think about? What about feeling?”
             “Well, try to think of art as a medium in which the artist expresses himself.”
             “Or herself!”
             “Right. One of the things that separates great artists from good ones, I think, is their ability to effectively express themselves in their work. But, as I’m sure you’ll find out, this feeling forms but one part in the entire tapestry of art. Language, for example, can also be considered an aesthetic phenomenon. The difference is that language makes more sense to us because of its practicality. It can be useful to think of art as a kind of language, where the artist is trying to transmit a very specific message or feeling. It is all connected, you see; at times it can even feel overwhelming if you think about it too much.”
             “Sounds scary.”
             “It can be for some, think of it as a calling. For some people, art can be the closest thing to a religious experience; the only link between this world and the next or between themselves and humanity.”
             “A transcendental experience! Like a near-death experience or witnessing a miracle.” 
             “You got it. Although, I should let you know that art and religion no longer share the same purpose. Somewhere along the way the two parted and began their own ways separately, independently I mean. Call me a romantic, but I like to think that one day they will find each other again. If you really think about it, art and religion are nothing more than gateways for humans to seek the Truth—whatever that might be. But like I said, try not to overthink it.”
             “Hmm, I’ll try not to,” she said, trying to organize another thought. After a long and quiet pause she added, “And, whom does art belong to anyway? Is it supposed to be for the artist or for other people?”
             “Both! Everyone, I mean. I happen to believe that art belongs to the artist only when he or she is in the process of creating. Once the piece is done, in a way, the artist has served its purpose. But that is my personal opinion, what do you think?”
             “I think that since art is also the result of a deeply personal expression, not everyone should be allowed to see it. I mean, we all have the right to have intimate secrets right? How would you feel if other people wanted to know about your personal feelings all the time?”
             “That is a good point.”
             “And what about reality? I mean, what’s real versus the surreal or that which isn’t real.”
             “What about it?”
             “Well, should the artist strive for reality or that which isn’t real? I mean, I get that the point of art is to express yourself and not just about capturing beauty, but what if your art depends on capturing reality? Should the photos I take try to capture reality or something else? I would really like to capture the essence of Europe while I’m there.” 
            He made a long pause before breaking the silence again, “Would you like to hear what I wrote my girlfriend when she went to France this past summer? I know I have a copy of the letter here somewhere.”
             “Sure, I didn’t even know you had a girlfriend. What’s it about?”
             “It was supposed to serve her as advice for all the things she was to see in Europe, but I think I wrote it more for myself. Anyway, I think it could help you as well. Here it goes:
             Have you ever heard about the Big, Red Barn that is said to be located in the American heartland? There is supposed to be a red barn in one of the northern states—probably in the Midwest—that is visited and photographed by many people throughout the year. There is nothing odd or new or distinct about this Big, Red Barn; like other barns around the country, this one is also red. The thing that sets this barn apart from the rest is that its visitors follow an almost pilgrimage-type of tradition that no one knows who invented but that cannot be as old as photography itself. The visitors take with them a picture or photo of the Big, Red Barn that I’m sure they sell there and are then themselves photographed in front of the barn while holding their picture in their hand. If I remember correctly, the visitors are supposed to walk to the Big, Red Barn and place their photographs on one of the barn’s walls. You can imagine how many people standing in front of the Big, Red Barn have placed their photographs of themselves standing in front of the barn over the years.
             Why exactly they do this I do not know. What I do know is that it is not all purely symbolic; maybe it is the desire of being part of something greater than oneself; maybe it is the thrilling experience of being part of something that one day will no longer be there. All these explanations are probably true to some extent, but neither of them serve to answer an even more important question about the Big, Red Barn. Which of the barns is the real one? Do not think that this is a rhetorical question, because it isn’t. After all, you can always make the case that it takes an actual, physical barn to start a chain reaction of people taking pictures in front of. But the question goes beyond all this: what is real versus what is not?
             Imagine for a moment what would happen if you were to visit this Big, Red Barn but would decide not to take any photographs at all? Would you say that you actually visited the Big, Red Barn? Would the barn still be real? And if so, which of the barns would you have decided not to take a picture in front of? These are, again, not rhetorical questions. It is true that a big, red barn does exist; it is also true that the Big, Red Barn is part of a kind of collective collage, whose tradition and memory are kept alive by the visitors who decide to photograph themselves in front of it. Now that you are in France, try to look for “The Treachery of Images” in a local museum or simply search the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (or “This is not a pipe”) on the internet. Is it really not a pipe? And if it is, which of them all is the real one? The one on your phone, the one on the painting, or the one inside the artist’s head?
             The answer to the question about the Big, Red Barn, then, is that neither of them is the real one. Visitors of the Big, Red Barn are often not aware that the Big, Red Barn is not really a place or a building, it is merely an idea. Very few of them will ever be surprised to find out that the place they thought to be the Big, Red Barn was nothing more than a big, red barn. The Big, Red Barn they wanted to see and photograph became real only after it was placed in the context of the other photos of all the other visitors holding their photos of the Big, Red Barn. You see, neither of them are real because neither of them were ever visited to begin with. They were all, like the photos hanging on the wall of an old barn, simply there.
What do you think?
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