Earlier today I was thinking about how great I think Umineko is and considered what would happen if I tried to show Umineko to someone who doesn’t read any visual novels or watch any anime. My first thought is that they wouldn’t appreciate it to the immense degree that I do, simply because I don’t think they would really get it. And it’s not because they aren’t smart or that it’s “too deep” for them. It’s also not a matter of having received education and knowledge of the higher level academic concepts that can be used to model and put names to the ideas presented by the story. While I do think my appreciation of the story is enhanced by the research/education/thinking I’ve done in philosophy, metaphysics, and epistemology, this is not the dividing factor that makes me think I can understand much better than newcomers to the medium would.
I believe that by far the most important aspect to understanding any piece of art is context. If you no nothing about the context that an artistic work was created in there’s no way you’d be able to even comprehend it. If an alien never exposed to our art came down to earth and presented its own “movie”, it would likely be nothing like any movie ever created by humanity. Of course this is never the case in the real world as there is some context that is consistent between basically all art and can be generally be assumed intuitively by all audiences. If you watch a movie you can probably assume it was created on Earth by at least one other human who experiences and utilizes many emotions and basic thought process that you can relate to. Additionally, in our interconnected globalized world it’s likely that anyone making a movie will have, to some degree, the same general idea of what a “movie” is. Because of this we can always take away something from most things we watch/read/play etc.
I see this as one of the main distinctions between arthouse media and media that is attempting to appeal to the widest audience possible. Mainstream media will generally try to focus on making its intrigue understandable through this assumed context so that anyone can enjoy it regardless of their age, knowledge, or experience with media. However, arthouse works, which are typically characterized by their heavy use of symbolism and their niche appeal focused towards academics and those who consume a lot of media, will often assume that the audience has a far greater understanding of the context behind the artist and the medium as a whole.
That being said, even for the most mainstream pieces of art there is a great amount of context beyond the assumable that shouldn’t be ignored. Even if we all have the same general idea of what a “movie” is, this perception is likely heavily derived from the movies we have seen, and will as such differ from person to person. It’s fair to assume that the average American will probably have seen a very different set of films from the average Japanese person, and as such the average perception of what movies are in America and Japan are likely different to some degree. Additionally, our culture and structure of society will also affect the way we look at, think about, and create movies, resulting in further incongruities between what “japanese movies” and “american movies” are.
As a result of this phenomena, it’s essential to understand context when trying to experience and understand art. I don’t think someone who hasn’t seen any anime or japanese media would be able to very easily understand everything about Evangelion due to a lack of understanding of the context. While this understanding could be enhanced by studying psychology, the history of anime in the 90’s, and the career of Hideaki Anno, I think it’s just as important, if not more, to have watched some early 90’s anime, any mecha anime, and some of Anno’s other works. By actually experiencing these things yourself you will slowly gain an intuitive understanding of Evangelion’s context by understanding the lineage of the ideas that influenced it, the unique ways that Anno expresses things in his shows, and where Evangelion stands in the overall history of anime. Sure, you could read about these topics through summaries and analyses created by researchers and fans, but in order to truly understand this context as best as possible you should strive to actually experience it yourself. You can read about “what anime is” in books all you want but unless you actually watch it your understanding will be inherently limited.
What I’m really trying to say here is that the most important factor in understanding a piece of art is knowing about its context. Its creator’s style and worldview, artistic medium, purpose, country of origin, language, and many other factors come together to make up the greater context that ultimately greatly influences what made the piece of art the way it is, and the best way to understand this context is by seeing it in action. By its very nature, art is best understood through consuming art.