Art as Koan

“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:

Dali: The Persistence of Memory
Dali: 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.

3 Replies to “Art as Koan”

  1. Making the connection between experiencing a koan and experiencing art is a great idea, Michael. There certainly can be lots of similarities. Yet the experience of some art really is improved by knowing more about what’s going on.

    Think about John Cage’s music, for example, where the process used to create it is often more interesting than the result, or at least helps us appreciate the result. Much conceptual art is like this, too–approaching some artifact solely as a visual koan, where all that matters is the experience of the thing itself, misses the point.

    Even when you’re experiencing a single work of art, knowing more about the context that work exists in can amplify the experience. I’m a huge fan of Motherwell’s Open series, for example, but to somebody seeing just a single example for the first time, the image can be meaningless. It’s hard to appreciate the beauty and meaning of the Opens until you’ve seen a number of them.

    Taking the art-as-koan approach is exactly right for some pieces in some contexts. And the stultifying analysis of most art criticism certainly is destructive. But for me, at least, knowing more about where a work came from, how it was created, or how it’s like similar works can often help enormously in appreciating what I’m seeing.

    • I do not disagree.

      Understanding the context is important for understanding the artist’s language, world view, or means of expression. The greater the distance between the world view of the artist and the audience, the more explanation is needed. As you noted, with conceptual art, this can very often be quite extensive.

      If after understanding the artistic language you do not emotionally engage with the work, however, you have an illustration, or a simple tune, not a work of art.

  2. The challenge I have with requiring an understanding (cognitive function) of the context and language of the artist in order to properly experience (emotional function) the work of art is it implies the higher brain functions of thinking can control the lower brain functions of feeling. The context and language of the artist can serve to explain why the viewer experiences the work in a particular way, but they cannot fundamentally drive the experience.

    For example, when I came to understand that Jackson Pollock’s brain was wired to produce fractal patterns it explained why I found his works appealing as opposed to works from other artists that were in actuality random drips of paint on a canvas. It likely also conveyed something about the wiring of my own brain, but none of that understanding was necessary to experience his works.

    This topic might have interesting implications for a conversation about teaching/learning methods, but that seems inappropriate for this forum.

Leave a Reply