I have a life-long passion for art, but I'm not a critic or a famous artist, so the best I can do is to share a few comments about what I have learned over the years in looking at art.
Am I willing to make the effort?
Answering this question is the first step in truly seeing a painting. Without a desire to know a painting more deeply, there is no path forward. However, just as appreciating and understanding a novel or film is intrinsically rewarding, so is seeing deeply into a work of art.
Seeing requires looking long.
Most visitors to an exhibit or gallery glance at a painting for a few seconds, and then move on to the next one. This is a good practice for getting an overview of an art exhibit. A walk-through is like a survey of a book in which a reader skims the table of contents and chapter headings. And then, after a walk-through, I return to paintings of interest and look long. Looking long is like reading a chapter in a novel. To really see any painting demands an investment of time. When my initial reaction to an exhibit or to a specific painting is uncertainty, I try to suspend prejudices and judgments and look longer.
I cannot see well when I am in the dark.
Our biases often prevent us from seeing or understanding better. We might take extreme positions, loving abstract art and hating realistic art. We might enjoy secular art but despise religious art. Or we might think only the works of celebrated artists are worth our attention. If my likes and dislikes are based mostly on prejudices, I cannot see beyond them. Instead of growing, I stagnate. Sometimes, the more informed have the greater prejudices. For example, a few critics, gallery curators, and artists so distain art that doesn’t challenge their perception of the status quo that they dismiss more traditional art with a contemptuous glance. In their view, only “cutting-edge” art is worth their time. When we hold onto our prejudices too strongly, our vision narrows and darkens. To see beyond our biases, we need to rise above them. Of course, it’s far easier to put this in words than it is to suspend or eliminate our biases.
I approach a painting as if a friend were communicating directly with me.
Most artists don’t paint solely for themselves; they paint for an audience: you and me. Approach a painting as though a friend were talking or writing to you, and sharing a highly personal experience. Instead of words, however, a painting uses visual language. I try to look at a painting similarly to how I would want to hear a friend - with openness and acceptance.
I look for the inner life of a painting.
Matisse believed that the inner life of a painting depended on whether artists were in touch with the inner life of the natural world. "That is the sense, so it seems to me, in which art may be said to imitate nature, namely, by the life that the creative worker infuses into the work of art. The work will then appear as fertile and as possessed of the same power to thrill, the same resplendent beauty as we find in works of nature." (Jack D. Flam, Matisse on Art. (New York, 1978), pp. 148-149.)
Matisse's view is sound. A good painting, abstract or realistic, has an inner life, or what I call presence. An artist who can discern the inner life of nature will eventually translate that life into the form and color of a painting. In addition, whether an artwork is infused with an inner life depends on the intensity and quality of the artist’s thought. Thoughts exist. They have energy. Thoughts are things. If this is a new idea, think about how a building is constructed. A skyscraper begins in the mind. Our lives and our world are built thought-by-thought. In making a painting, I believe the thoughts of the artist are part of the physical painting somewhat like the soul is connected to a body but independent of it.
Some paintings don’t have much presence because the artist was not engaged, or had nothing much to communicate. The paintings seem nearly lifeless. Some paintings have a strong presence, but it's the quality of presence that matters to me. Presence in a painting might awe me like a miracle, or feel like the flu. Our response to presence in a painting depends on our own inner consciousness. Some artists, whose thoughts are overly negative and dark, may produce paintings I would find repellant, but which for others would feel irresistible. In art as in friendships, like attracts like.
Many gifted artists have an innate capacity to infuse their art with a powerful presence. Van Gogh’s paintings, for example, have an undeniable inner life. Other artists take years to develop their capacity through training and personal transformation. Iconographers make images with a powerful spiritual presence. It’s partly learning the canon, but it’s mostly developing a spiritual integrity that matches the purpose of their art. Iconographers learn to “write” each icon with deeply-felt prayers, layer-by-layer and line-by-line.
Learn more about the art you like, and more about the art you don’t like.
Usually, the better we know our friends, the more dear they become to us. It’s an easy task to learn more about the art we like, but it’s more challenging to tackle art we don’t know or don't like. Yet, in learning more about the art we don’t initially like or know well, we will learn something new, and perhaps our new knowledge will change our minds. For instance, if you don’t like abstract art, consider reading short pieces on the Internet about the pioneer abstract artists of the twentieth century. Why did they abandon realism in painting? What did they hope to achieve? Conversely, if you think only amateurs or hopelessly out-of-fashion artists paint realistic images, try to figure out why skilled professionals might persist in using the traditional visual language of realism. This isn’t to say you need to become as knowledgeable about painting as an art historian, but being receptive and friendly to a painting, and learning a little about its style and its medium, may open your eyes to it. The reward is growth in knowledge and in seeing.
Copyright 2016 by Nick Payne