The Eye Of The Beholder

After forty-one years of trying to open the minds of college undergraduates to the possibilities of fine art, several things finally dawned on me. To begin with, in the end it is a matter of taste. The fine arts, including painting, poetry, sculpture, literature, and dance, are immensely complex and there is no argument (that I have come across) that will make a person appreciate what they find dull and uninteresting. That’s the first thing, though things are not this simple as I shall try to explain below. The second thing I have learned is that the sensibilities of the spectator, whoever it may be, vary immensely and since no two people are alike, reactions to the same object will vary proportionately.

There are three things to consider when talking about the fine arts. There is the object itself, say, the painting in the gallery. Next, there is the spectator who is gazing at the painting with varying degrees of attention. And finally there is the interaction between the two — which some insist is the actual “work of art.” But we will ignore this third thing entirely (which gets us into metaphysics) to focus attention on the first two. Let’s talk about the object itself, the painting on the wall. There are objective factors that all can see — the canvas, the paint, the arrangement of the figures in the scene, for example — and there is also what some would insist is the tendency to evoke a certain response, say, fear, delight, rage, or perhaps calm. These things can be pointed out and an “expert” is the one to do this because she has had the training and is probably a painter herself.

But when it comes to the spectator things get very complicated indeed. The supposed “tendency to evoke a particular response” may fall on deaf ears (as it were). The spectator may be color-blind, inattentive, or bored. He or she may never have looked at a painting before and doesn’t know how — which may sound strange, but it takes sensitivity,  attention, and concentration to appreciate the many complex factors that go into a single painting, musical composition, or piece of sculpture. Not everyone has these abilities. Indeed, in our age it becomes increasingly difficult to get young people, in particular, to stand and look at a painting that is simply hanging there and not moving and/or making noise. It takes work, in a word, and a great many people simply don’t want to make the effort or have diminished attention spans.

The last thing I have learned is that the quick response to fine art, that it is (just) a matter of taste, is a sign of intellectual laziness, the same sort of laziness that makes it difficult, or impossible, for a person to stand before a painting and open himself or herself to the many qualities that are there for all to see and appreciate. It is easier to shrug one’s shoulders and ask “who’s to say?” This translates into: “don’t bug me. There’s a party Thursday night and I have to get the keg. I have more important things to think about than this damn painting (class,problem, issue, etc. etc.)

Thus, while art IS a matter of taste in the end, there is much that can be said before we reach that point. And taste can be affected by having features of the work pointed out and increasing one’s experience and sensitivity to the things that “go on” in the painting. It can be “improved” as we say — which doesn’t mean “more like mine,” but more aware of what is going on in the work itself. Think, for example, how much more complex is a Beethoven sonata than, say, the latest hit on the top 40. There’s more there for the mind to get ahold of, and it takes an effort and willingness to be open to the new and different. The same complexity is present in all works of fine art and it takes an effort to appreciate this complexity. The unwillingness or inability to open oneself to these complexities results in a flattened world that is devoid of the many features that surround us and can make our world a richer and more exciting place to live. Not only in the fine arts, but also in the world the artist is revealing to us.


10 thoughts on “The Eye Of The Beholder

  1. The importance of carefully looking at a painting, taking my time, first started to make sense to me when I looked at a Van Gogh in the Minneapolis Institute of Art and realized the thick crests of color were actually ridges created by the end of rough brush strokes made by the hand of Van Gogh himself!

    That was that interaction between the work and viewer that you talk about Hugh, and I simply stopped, stood for a long time and looked, taking in the colors, the motions of those colors. All of it. It was beautiful!

  2. Good post. Whether it is music, painting, photography, dance, poetry or prose, what tends to last are things with texture and/ or context. I like to think of the contrast of catchy tunes that soar to number one because of a gimmick to music that has substance, texture and excellent musicianship. The one hit wonder will not be played in the future as much as the latter. Steely Dan will get played more as their music stands the test of time, while others won ‘t. Of course, this is all one man ‘s opinion . BTG

  3. “The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils; The motions of his spirit are dull as night, And his affections dark as Erebus. Let no such man be trusted.”

    The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare

  4. I’ve experienced this from two perspectivies; I’ve witnessed how others react to my paintings (quite humbling for me) and I remember vividly the paintings that affect me on strong emotional levels. I’ve always known of Guayasamin’s work, but I did not appreciate it until I viewed some of his originals and heard the stories behind the paintings or even read the captions. These paintings are huge, so they take command of a room… Imagine walking up to a huge paiinting, of four or so people staring staight up, mouths slighly agape (I think).. you’re seeing theme from a toddler’s view, since their shoulders and faces take up the space and tower above you.. then you read the name of the painting; “Hiroshiima”

    I almost colllapsed and I choked back a swallowed fit of weeping.

    To know the history of a painting or why it was painted – that makes the entire experience much more personal. z

  5. A comment to Ron won’t go through, b/c I am home and his page doesn’t load. I suspect he is addressing the same subject as you did… Here is the link to his bloga nd you can tell him “HI” and compare notes. Isn’t it odd how certain themes pop up at the same time? It’ the time for talking about how art affects othes!

    Just don’t have the mental energy to write that post right now, so a short one is in queu for tomorrow. Time to log off and rest for the rest of the day. Z

  6. Pingback: Timeout for Art: The Art of Studying Works of Art | Zeebra Designs & Destinations

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