You wander through one of a city’s great art museums and watch the people. They spend an average of maybe 15 seconds in front of any painting that catches their attention before moving on.
Or more likely, they spend another 15 seconds reading the label on the wall. And if the label contains a legend explaining who the artist was or what the painting is about, they may very well spend more time with the label than with the art on the wall. It’s disheartening to watch.
One of the problems is that we are a verbal, not a visual culture. I know the common wisdom is currently that we are a visual people, but it simply isn’t true: Even those things we think of as symptomatic of being visual are things we “read” for information rather than see: like the stick figure man or woman that lets us know which restroom is appropriate.
But even more than that, it is that we are a problem-solving people. America’s national mythology describes us as doers and go-getters. We simply don’t believe in wasting our time. We’re too busy. Our heads are too crowded.
There are all those yapping voices, all those different aspects of our personalities, all clamoring for attention.
”Don’t forget the dentist appointment.”
”Do these socks go with this tie?”
”Is the ozone hole getting bigger?”
So, it’s hard to appreciate art these days.
Each of us has it: The executive in our heads that tries to get through life quickly and efficiently, cutting through the baloney and making the decisions for everyone else in there.
It’s a necessity in an information top-heavy age with bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeways.
Unfortunately, this tendency to empty the ”in box” and get on to the next problem runs completely counter to what art is about. To see art, or read poetry, or listen to chamber music, we have to kidnap, blindfold and gag the executive in our brains and give ourselves over to a different kind of experience.
And ”experience” is the operative word, for the primary function of art is to provide an aesthetic experience.
That executive in our cranium is used to dealing with information, not experience. There is life on one hand, and there are words and symbols about life on the other. Most of what life requires of us in the late 20th century deals with words and symbols: filling out forms, scanning in our Visa numbers, looking down the stock listings in the Business section of the newspaper. We are drowned in words.
But at least we are used to them. Experience is scary: sensuous, messy, confused.
So how do you deal with art? How do you prepare yourself to appreciate it, enjoy it, and grow from the experience of being exposed to it?
First of all, you have to slow down. Your interior life moves slowly, implacably. It is only your cerebral cortex that buzzes with frenetic energy. The deeper, more meaningful emotions, the underlying rhythm of life is more measured: a pedal note under the jangling fugue subject above.
Art requires that you work on this slower time scale. It doesn’t give itself up, like the punch line on a New Yorker cartoon; it slowly releases its value to those who can wait.
You have to spend time with a painting or statue. The Manager wants to look at a painting and say, ”Yes, I know that: It’s a Renoir. File it under ’19th Century, Impressionism, French.’ ” And then move on to the next: ”17th Century, Dutch, Genre: Rembrandt.”
But if you look at a single painting for, say, an hour, you will learn things about it. You will be forced to discover all the richness that the artist took the time to put there.
What colors has the artist used? What shapes? Is it dark or is it light? What is the subject? Can you make sense of it? If not, is the ambiguity important? Is the paint thickly applied, or flat and textureless? How does that help the painting convey what it has to give you?
You swish it around in your mouth like a good wine, looking for the complexities of taste and aftertaste.
How does the painting make you feel? Is it an emotion you’ve felt before? If not, is it related to one you’ve felt? If it’s completely new, how do you feel about that?
The art slowly unfurls, like a rose opening from a bud. The attention you pay will pay you back.
In the next installment, we’ll take a look at just one painting and see how this approach might pay off.