Not Just Looking

John Haber
in New York City

A Letter to an Artist

Does it matter where a work of art originated? Do we need to ask about the artist, the time, or the culture, or can we just appreciate the art? And if we do not appreciate the art for itself, have we betrayed it and, just as much, ourselves? Why should art not speak for itself?

I have pursued questions like these often over the more than twenty years of this Web site, along with my role as a critic. In fact, I doubt that I can match the more philosophical attempts in the past! The questions came up again, though, not so very long ago on Facebook. The Torment of Saint Anthony attributed to Michelangelo (Kimbell Art Museum, c. 1488)When I posted a link and brief reply, a second artist was even more skeptical. Suppose I rework my further comments, then, in defense of not just looking. I shall combine my address to both, in the form of a letter to an unknown artist, maybe even you.

Art still takes words

You raised the questions as both an admirer of art and an artist, so it is doubly real for you. You have heard friends speak of what they see in the patterns that they have made. As a savvy viewer who cannot see the same, you have to wonder whether that could ever matter to you. You may wonder whether your thoughts appear fully in your work as well. If not, you may wonder whether your work has taken on a new life, apart from you, or rather failed. It is, after all, a work of your imagination.

I have argued before why art takes words. It has to take words for me as a writer, and I have to hope that my words can open art to some others as well. In my earlier piece, I looked in particular at changing attributions. The Rembrandt committee had changed its mind about a painting in the Frick that so many of us have taken for granted as his. It has even shaped our personal understanding of Rembrandt. Since then, big money has backed novel attributions to Michelangelo at (gasp) age twelve and, more recently, Leonardo da Vinci.

I still think that attributions matter, which is why arguments about millions of dollars for a supposed Leonardo get so heated. Allow me now, though, a fuller context for much the same questions—beyond attributions. I can start with your recent experience, on the way to that of others. Now, no question that an artist's intentions cannot tell the whole story. Hard as it is to admit, an artist may even get it wrong. I am still attached enough to Modernism, New Criticism, and the like to think so.

Yet if the "intentional fallacy" means that it never matters how, where, and when a work of art began, then it is wrong. As Nelson Goodman, a philosopher of art, has said, he will believe that a painting speaks for itself when people start to admire poetry without reading the words. If you think that ugly painting is by Leonardo, you have to look for and indeed to see things that are simply not there. You have to see Leonardo and his other works differently, too, to their detriment. And then your questions may help you think freshly about those works once again, to their betterment.

Think that you could not agree less with Goodman? I could understand that, but you may agree much more than you think, so let me tell you why. To me, it is just common sense. My answer will take several parts, so bear with me, but I shall try to stay more practical at the cost of serious theory than my previous effort. It involves the work and how the work comes to affect others. Pardon me, though, if it starts with you.

It is easy enough for you and me to think that art is just a matter of looking—and that looking is only natural. But that is because it is so easy to forget how much we have internalized, from what we know and love to what we dismiss. For me, that has taken time, study, and a lot of mind changes over the years. For artists like you, no doubt, it has taken inborn talent. And if we do forget, we have made art an elitist form, for those of us who worked our butts off or have a gift, and that is wrong. It is less than the art deserves. It is less than others deserve, too.

The hard part

We can easily forget how hard art is for most people. Just thirty years ago, museums were largely empty and galleries few and poorly attended. The shift is gratifying, but people have not grown all that smarter. Even now, most people find contemporary art and historical art equally remote. They find art of past centuries obscure and more recent art little more than a fraud—where recent could mean after Andy Warhol or after more than a century ago. They still want to know today, "Why is that art?"

Giotto's Lamentation (The Arena Chapel, Padua, c. 1305)They may cluster around a few highlights in a museum, joining the crowds and the selfies. They are drawn to a painting by Claude Monet or Pierre-Auguste Renoir because it is so pretty, one by Vincent van Gogh or Edvard Munchd because it is expressive. They cannot get enough of the Mona Lisa because it is mysterious (and, of course, famous). Even so, they may never realize how loaded such words as pretty and expressive are. They cannot realize either how shocking and unrealistic much of their favorite art seemed in its time. And without that shock, they are missing much of what makes it worth their while.

Even given what we know, we should not believe that art is only what we can see, lest we miss out on so much ourselves. We would have to dismiss not just conceptual art, but also art based on myth or religion. We would have to obliterate entirely the slippery distinction between outsider artists and those trained in drawing from life. We would have to stop asking an artist at an opening what that medium is, how the work ever got made, or if that house is where he or she grew up. And then we would miss out on how eye-opening it is for us to hear. Often much of what matters is less than obvious, especially these days, after an avant-garde purity, so that realism blends into abstraction and prints into the handmade.

We would be letting ourselves off the hook at that, missing out on still more. We would not be talking to ourselves about what we see, arguing with ourselves, and extending or changing our mind. For me at least, all that is part of art. If the art is any good, we may do so for days or even years to come. As a writer, I also feel obliged to ask about artists I may not like much, as with David Hockney only recently. I have to ask, so that I can awaken others to the artists and to my reservations alike.

Excluding that dialogue can easily exclude the questions at the core of our experience. When we see something, are bound to ask whether it is truly abstract or if that Giotto is a Lamentation scene. We are bound, too, to ask still more. That is because we need to ask what the artist did with the story—or, if you like when it comes to abstraction, the lack of story. We need to ask what it meant to the artist, what that artist meant it to mean to others, and how that makes this work so unusual and so meaningful. If we shut up, it may no longer be so unusual and so meaningful to us as well.

Think more about that question of not subject but handling. If we see only the Lamentation, we are reducing the art to a symbol. People do that all the time, even people smart enough to know better. They will talk about what that aspect of Christianity means to them. Faced with van Gogh, they will offer their own beliefs about mental illness. None of that is relevant.

Neither symbol nor colors

Conversely, if we see the Nativity as only a panoply of forms and colors, we miss even more. We might have a lot of trouble arguing something as basic as why those choices of form and color are so wonderful. Is "just looking" up to the task? I think it can, but only because good looking involves good questioning. It, too, takes words, even if a bad curator can confuse art and jargon. You need not even be aware of the words as you look.

Let me leave you with an analogy. A jazz musician often riffs on a theme or a classic song. And then our pleasure comes in hearing what comes out of that. I often replay the original lyrics in my head with each new verse to watch the improv evolving. It helps me hear not just the theme, but also the variations. It helps me hear what the musician is doing with the music.

If we hear only the old song, we might as well be listening to elevator music. And if we do not hear the song, we might as well be hearing random noise. We also would not know what makes, say, Coltrane like or unlike Miles or free jazz. In much the same way, we need to wonder at what makes Jackson Pollock like or unlike Willem de Kooning—and Monet like or unlike Renoir. Again, I would love you to read my thoughts from years back on why attributions matter and why we argue over them so heatedly. But attribution is just part of the experience that takes thought and words.

In all this, I am bound to reflect on my own history. Frankly, I am not one for whom art was at all natural. I may make fun of a close relative who went to school with Frank Stella and still cannot understand why anyone would pay Stella the least attention. But am I so very different? In college, I started to hang around with friends and friends of friends who were budding artists. They and their preference for abstract art were downright intimidating, their professor all the more so.

I wanted to get over my perplexity. It helped that I was learning about philosophy even before they told me about critical theory, deconstruction, and such contemporary giants as Richard Rorty and W. V. O. Quine. Meanwhile a friend from high school had taken an art history class at his college, where he had fallen in love with the Northern Renaissance as described by Erwin Panofsky. I knew that I had to get that, book, too. As a self-taught historian and critic, I have been working through that learning experience ever since. It does not bother me that it never gets all that easier.

You might say that the key for me was stepping outside my comfort zone. And, I am arguing, it must be the key for others as well. It might even define the value of art. A great work can take you out of your comfort zone like nothing else—only to find new comforts. As a writer, I hope to help others do so as well. Even if you already love art and take its pleasures for granted, maybe I can help even you.

BACK to John's arts home page

This originated with a Facebook post and my comments. It is, however, in part a fiction. I am in effect addressing both the artist who posted and another who objected to my initial comment. I have benefitted from comments, ones with which I disagree but that got me thinking, in response to podcasts by Cheryl McGinnis. Again, I treat this as a follow-up to earlier attempts at answering why art takes words and why critics matter.


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