Saturday, August 1, 2009

Looking at a painting (more thoughts on understanding)

I remember a discussion I once had with a younger friend. It was about the Impressionist paintings in Chicago, at the Art Institute there. (They do have the largest collection of Impressionists in the world; larger than at any French museum, from what I know. And it seems that this is due to the inspiration of collectors who recognized their value before they were recognized in France; but I am not sure about this.) In any case: the discussion was about learning to "read" these paintings. My (much) younger(er) friend was slightly appalled by the idea that one would need to get acquainted with the language in which they - these painters - communicate. This is somewhat characteristic to a certain ultra-democratic psychology that pervades our way of looking at things - at almost everything: from education, to religion, to art.

Yet nobody would think that you can go perform surgery, without understanding how the human body works. Well, this parallel might be a little forced; let's try something else. Nobody would expect you to go to a non-English-speaking country, and be able to communicate with the people there, in their language, without having tried to learn at least a few words ("Good-morning!" "Where is the railroad station?")

Yet what is happening, in fact, when I am looking at a painting? 

I am trying to communicate. Indirectly, it is a sort of communication with the painter, but that is not the point. In fact, I would rather not know, most of the times, what the painter wrote about things in the world. (Except, for example, in Vasari's case, since he was first and foremost a scholar, then a painter.)

Communicating, here, means trying to enter into communication with the object itself: with the painting. In order to "understand" it? No, I would rather not say that. Understanding can be taken to mean an act of reason, purely; and, although reason does play a role, painting is not about cryptology. It is rather like an encounter, like when I have an encounter with someone with whom, say, I am not talking; but I look at him, at his face, demeanor, even his body, our eyes do meet, too - and we do understand certain things, immediately; and, if I am careful, I might notice that there is also a certain "sensation" to this encounter; that, within, I am experiencing many things, in that moment.

This experience, this sensation, is a mixture of memory, emotions, of the luggage of the day, of set ideas I have about things etc. Memories? Impressions from similar encounters; what I know and think about how people dress; other encounters with people like this tall, brown-haired person; predispositions I have about people with moustaches. Emotions? I do feel a certain way, with regards to every person I meet, although most of these emotions are either at the normal, "social" level, or below the threshold where I become aware of them. The luggage of the day: am I tired? unawares, do I feel uncomfortable, after having walked, in the heat of the city, to this place? did the day have a good start?

We might not talk, therefore, but we have already communicated, in the sense that I, at least, have encountered him.

The parallel with watching a painting might be a bit limp, but it works in the sense that what I get from the encounter, is a function of my whole being; which is to say - my experience: past, and the present of that moment. All the things that make up my life, my experience, I have them in me: it is the language I have learned from the moment I was born; and thank God we all have this aptitude of "developing" in this manner. With a radically different experience - say, if I would have been born in China, or in India, or just in Canada, my "language" which I would bring to understanding this other person (and note that we are not talking about verbal communication) would surely be different. And what if I would have been raised by a pack of wolves (it has happened)? Think about what Yuja Wang said about her trying to get acquainted with the universe (language) of Liszt's worksThen why would it be so shocking (in this democratic, democratizing mode of thinking) that the encounter is richer, if one's language, one's whole being, is more acutely in syntony with the object/person it encounters. In syntony: which means emotions, feelings, impressions, memories, all the elements with which we encounter and make sense of the world.

There seem to be two extremes, here; like in many other occasions, they seem to be related, somehow.
On the one end is the attitude that, in order to be able to encounter an object of art, one needs to have the information that would "solve" it, decipher it. This is a truly dangerous attitude, the one that I would say raises the greatest obstacles to most of the people, to encountering any good thing. This is the fear of being unprepared, intellectually. Yet this is not an intellectual encounter; or, not first and foremost. At its core, one could say that this is an emotional experience. It is an emotion like the emotion of meeting someone - be it a stranger, someone you've known for a long time etc. At the core of it, what one has to do (and this is what I do) is become attentive to oneself. While you encounter that object, start focusing and be attentive, notice, what is going on with you, inside you; try to be attentive to the emotions, images, the memories this brings; because this, in fact, is your encounter with that painting (or whatever it is), at its core.

Painting is not Sudoku: it is not a puzzle, a quiz, to be deciphered, solved; although, of course, there are plenty of paintings that have all sorts of intellectual games, symbols, allusions,quotations, embedded throughout (Medieval painting, or Byzantine icons are good examples of that). So good for you if you get those symbols, allusions. But painting - or art - is not a puzzle, because it is not meant to have only one correct (valid) solution. I would say that this attitude, this fear of "being wrong," of not getting "the correct answer," is one of the greatest obstacles in the reception of art. (This is also why people have to be told that this and this is by a big name, say, Michelangelo. That "guarantee of quality" is a way of bypassing the fear of "not getting it right." This is also why there is such a thing as snobbery, which is the same thing.)
At the other extreme, is the democratist idea - that it is all one, that all have equal access, to everything. Yet the same person will not say that we all encounter all the people in the same way. He would not say that we do not make friends, more easily, with certain people, than with others. That, beyond the meeting of temperaments, it does not matter if we actually speak the language the other person speaks.

At the core of what I am trying to convey is that the encounter with an object of art - just like the encounter with any object - is, first, a universal endowment, of being able to encounter what surrounds us (and I am not talking only visually, of course). Second, that it is a personal event, in which all the dimensions of our being are involved, from emotions to reason; and is a function of all that we are, from what we think about the world, to what we have "learned" from the world. And third, if you will: that we can always do something about these events, since our luggage of "instruments" - emotions, experiences, thoughts - that we bring to these encounters is shapedcontinuously, even during the encounter itself, if we give ourselves some time, and become attentive to what is going on within us.

So how about those Impressionists? It does not hurt to speak their language, since what they expressed was very consciously expressed in a certain way. Reading the Song of Songs is not the same with reading Paul's epistles, although Paul does get poetic quite often. In any case, it is not the same as reading the (proverbial) phone book, which nobody does, since there is Google (hence it has become "proverbial" to do that). They are both in English. But there is a serious difference of language.

P.S. I found that - well, my own way of encountering abstract painting is by doing just that - becoming attentive to myself, focusing on what I am experiencing - the memories that come to mind, my feelings thoughts etc. The more "abstract" they are, the more subjective they are, the more directly related the most (verbally) inexpressible dimensions of the self of the painter - hence their abstract nature. (This is not universally true, of course; the programmatic dimensions take the forefront in so much of contemporary painting; unfortunately in so many cases this becomes sheer ideology, "political message"... terrible, barren, drab.) In any case, this remains my preferred, "personal" manner of encountering contemporary abstract painting.

No comments:

Post a Comment