“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions…”
David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature
Emotions first, cognition second is the best way to perceive art, even contemporary art.
We feel independently from the way we think. Feelings are our only true motivations. Feelings conflict, reason can help us sort out feelings, but cognition is an intellectual mask over feelings.
Painters paint, sculptors sculpt, composers compose. If they wanted to use words, they would have written.
When Beethoven needed words to express himself he wrote – in one of the most remarkable artistic statements of all time – the Heiligenstadt Testament. Facing his growing deafness, his fear of its effect on his music, his growing sense of social isolation, he contemplates suicide.
He decides to live for the music he could express — not for writing about music.
Our seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching are not neutral sensations reflected on by a cognitive mind, but processed, altered, felt, and directed, by a biased brain. As we see, hear, smell, taste, touch a work of art, we associate them with past memories, and their associated feelings and thoughts. Our lives are embedded in a world of past associations.
If we want to share our feelings with others, we have to use words. In the best art criticism the feelings drive the words. The abstractions are an attempt to universalize the feelings.
I am not against learning about history, artists, their environments, their methods, their influences, or similar information, but not as a substitute for engaging with the work of art itself. Cezanne’s brush strokes were driven by the feelings and ideas he expressed in his work.
Watch people in a museum and you will see people being perplexed over works of art. Most spend a brief interval and then walk away. Some glance briefly at the label, hoping for some sort of enlightenment. You have to spend some time to engage the work of art, something most museums do not make easy.
I remember going to exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. More people spent time clustered around historical and biographic explanations than before the works themselves. Yet in a few discussions with other patrons, it was clear some shared my views.
I find the explanatory tapes given out in museums insipid. I promised myself I would never listen to one ever gain. It as if the commentary on the tapes is afraid of engaging people’s passions for fear of offending someone.
If I ever could make a large gift to a museum, it would be contingent on putting more benches in the exhibit halls so people could sit and look and try to figure out art on their own. Some private art galleries are better than public museums.
What about artist statements about contemporary art?
Those statements are about context. What we experience is dependent on what we expect. In the past, cultures generally shared expectations that an artist could depend on. In today’s world of fragmented cultures, an artist cannot count on a shared context. The artist seeks to provide one to guide our sensual processing.