photo collage on paper
I managed once to make it to Italy to see all the great works of art I’d ever only seen and loved in books. Among the most moving were Michelangelo’s sculptures, the Pieta, the David, but especially the Captives. These men emerging but never free of the stone from which they were created, these captives indeed, filled me with such longing, such a sense of power; it was as though I witnessed the birth of humanity. Of all the works I saw, these particularly spoke to me of the human condition itself, that in being human, we are in the end inextricable from the matrix of life, inexorably a part of the structure of all matter, stone as much as flesh, never ‘above’, ‘below’ or ‘outside’ nature’ but magnificently of it, ever in the throes of being created, and of becoming aware.
I was awed by the genius of a man able to convey what I interpreted as humanity's fundamental joy and dilemma in such a masterful way.
Later I stood looking at another of Michelangelo’s sculptures of Mary holding her crucified son, this one deemed ‘unfinished’, the very agony of her loss and his sacrifice expressed by every visible stroke of chisel. It was done later in his life, when he had long proven his mastery. I saw in it the confidence of an artist able to hold back description to expose the raw power of his technique. Imagine my reaction therefore to overhear this comment from a fellow museum visitor standing beside me:
“There, again. Funny he got so famous,” the man said to his companions and to me by virtue of a glance in my direction, ”he never finished anything.” They nodded in agreement.
Surprised and a little shocked, I said, " Well, the unfinished or raw feel of the work is part of its meaning now, as we stand here looking at it." I would have continued to say that it’s what made the sculpture more conceptual than narrative but the expression on the faces looking at me stopped me. They stared at me. The man’s look was that of a man who thinks his leg is ‘being pulled’.
“Whatever,” he said to me. He turned to his companions, “Let’s eat, I’m hungry,” he said, and off they went, having spent all of maybe ten minutes to look at and dismiss five centuries worth of art.
“Tourists!” I said under my breath, and continued being amazed and inspired by what I saw.
Little did I know as I embarked on a professional life in Art that I would come across relatives of this man every time an art object went on public display.
In my roles as an artist and curator, I have since met many other ‘amateur’ art viewers. Something about their all-too-common reaction to works of art still amazes me every time I hear it. Unlike performance audiences who know they are there to be ‘entertained’ on all levels of that experience, some members of the visual art audience seem to go to galleries as if they enter an arena. They stand face-to-face with a painting or sculpture as if the work is a challenge. If they don’t ‘get it’ without any effort beyond looking, they try to second-guess the artist or to dominate the work, and they struggle especially to explain its price. They seem to fear someone is somehow trying to fool them.
They all too often preamble their judgment by announcing, “I don’t know anything about art but…” Knowing what they like seems to be permission enough for them to dismiss or praise a work on all kinds of levels I consider ‘expert’. They react to what they don’t like in the work as if it’s a mistake that needs correcting. When they don’t understand a work, they seem to overcompensate by becoming more dismissive. The “I could do that!” or “My child could do that” fly, as if their or their child’s being ‘able to do ‘it’ is some kind of put-down or insult. Really, I pity their children.
I have heard countless comments underlining the fact that people who make such statements are actually quite proud of their ignorance and think they’re in a place where they can indulge it with impunity. (There is no body checking in a museum, no danger of a concussion in an art gallery, no jab in an artist’s studio, no referee imposing penalties there either) Why is that? Do they fantasize that the artist is seeking their approval? Do they do this because they remember and still sting from their teachers’ or parents’ reactions to their own artistic efforts? Do they do it because they are faced with something out of their ‘normal’ and don’t know how else to approach it without seeming uncouth?
It’s actually funny. It would be as if they said, “Doctor, I don’t know anything about medicine but I know what I like and I don’t like the way you hold that scalpel!” Maybe the only reason they don’t say such things to surgeons is because of the anaesthetic?
Or, “Mr. 747 pilot, I don’t know anything about airplanes but I know what I like and I don’t like how you’re flying this one!” Maybe they only refrain from such comments because they want to land safely?
Or, “Look at that Eiffel Tower! Really, it should have been shorter and broader at the base. And why grey metal? It doesn’t match my couch!”
I tell such viewers this:
Artists consider nothing a ‘mistake’ if it carries meaning, is evocative and expresses the artist’s style or intent, and so the work of selection, adjustment and elimination is done long before the work is put in an exhibition. Therefore, my first advice to anyone coming to look at art objects is this: assume that everything you see is there exactly as the artist intended it. As you stand before it, receive it and relate to it as you would a piece of music or a theatrical performance. Be aware as you look that a viewer’s reaction is always a response, that ‘first impression’ is created as much by what the viewer brings to the exchange as by what the artist created.
As you look, as yourself such questions as: What am I looking at? How is it created? What attracts my notice, why? Does anything seem distracting or disturbing, why? How does it achieve this effect? What associations am I making? How far are the images taking me emotionally and intellectually? Is my attention being directed or am I being bounced around dizzyingly, and is this enhancing or interfering with my response ? And so on. This is the kind of reaction that leads to a fascinating mental journey, and if it is shared, an enriching conversation.