“Vénus changée en document.”
Paul Valéry, Le Problème des Musées in Pièces sur L’Art
Viewing an artwork, I do not think about it, I experience it.
What is the problem with thinking? Thinking lead to reasoning, reasoning leads to conceptualization. Conceptualization leads to criticism. Criticism leads to art theory and academics. There are more human feelings and emotions than vocabulary to express them in any language. Being enraptured by a statue of Venus is very different from reading a dissertation about a statue of Venus.
Watch people in a museum look at art. Most spend a few minutes looking at something, and move bewildered to the next piece. Art captions are useless. Museum audio tapes are atrocious; they tell you everything about the work of art, and nothing to help you experience it.
How do you experience a work of art?
Take Dali’s The Persistence of Memory:
While I must use words, I will try to convey my reactions which may only come after quite a bit of looking, and not necessarily in the order I describe. My experience is biased by other art I have seen or read about. It is also biased by my life experiences. This is true of everybody, and there is nothing wrong with that.
The dream like setting makes me avoid a straight narrative. I then start to look at the various objects in the picture, and what impression they make on me.
Melting watches distorts my impression of the flow of time. I feel that distorts my impressions of the objects viewed that have melted watches. Was the tree always barren, did I see it loose its leaves? Or do I just remember its final state? Melting watches get larger and larger until that time distortion dominates the perception.
The melting horse in the dark background is a dissolving life before my eyes. Yet the solid mountains in the light background impress me as a stable memory. The image is confusing much like a dream is confusing. Some memories seem to remain undistorted in time, others become unrecognizable. How soon before the horse melts away and all that remains is a glimmer?
Is the experience of my life dissolving around me over time, as the world around me is stable? Or has the watch on the mountain not yet started to melt so we cannot see it yet?
Human memory is not photographic – it is highly selective and reconstructed. My reconstruction combines clarity and light and darkness and distortion which leaves me with a distinct feeling of dismay and distrust of my own memories. How much is really true?
Thomas Cleary describes this approach, in Unlocking the Zen Koan, to interpret a Zen koan. Koans do not make logical sense, and perhaps they cannot ever make any sense. The attempt to interpret them is the enlightening endeavor. It is not about intellectual understanding – it is about direct experience of what you are focusing on. As a metaphor, treat an artwork as a koan.
Look at a work of art, see what associations come to mind, but don’t hold on to them. Feel your emotional reactions to those associations. See what associations arise from those feelings whether profound or simple. See what you like, what you dislike. But don’t stop. The closer the worldview of the artist is to yours, the easier the task will be. The work of art may seem beautiful, sublime, disturbing, or revolting.
You may detest Dali’s language, or this particular Dali painting. You are not required to like or appreciate every painting in a museum or art gallery. It is OK to hate works of art. Perhaps the worst thing you can say about a work of art is that you have no feeling about it.
Art is to be experienced.