Art as Experience
What I’m about to say to you is, in a sense, simple, though its ramifications are not. This will be an essential foundation for much that I’ll have to say in future posts, and it’s crucial for truly understanding art photography and the other arts.
Yes, many forces and purposes go into an artwork’s making, like the urges for self-expression or self-discovery, and motivations both conscious and unconscious. But the finished work, in the way that ultimately concerns (or should concern) the one who makes it and the one who receives it, is the shaping of a medium or media in order to create an experience in another person. Once it’s made, the work can be rightly perceived, understood, and valued only by giving yourself to that experience and knowing first-hand (in the metaphorically-Biblical sense, you might say) what that experience is and what it does to you.
The measure of a work of art ought to be how much life it brings to you, in the present and for the future. How often have people said of great photography that it teaches them not just to look, but to see? And I think, for instance, of the opera conductor who declared that the two hours he was spending each night watching Maria Callas in Tosca were far more real to him than anything else going on in his day.
The psychologist Carl Jung wrote that we all have, to differing degrees, four basic modes of orienting ourselves to reality: physical sensation, emotion, intellect, and intuition. Isn’t it interesting to note how close this is to the Old Testament’s exhortation to love God “with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all they strength, and with all thy mind”? An artwork that is whole employs all four modes to good effect, not just one or two.
I’ve seen many, many photographs that are very little more than striking color patterns or geometric designs, with perhaps a bit of pleasing texture. I see too many inexpressive closeups of peeling paint, especially on old cars. Though I’ve taken those kinds of pictures myself (and you probably have, too — why not?), I’m unlikely to exhibit them in public. My vote is with Van Gogh, who wrote in a letter: “I’d rather be an honest cobbler than just a magician with colors.”
Along with this question of wholeness, we should ask: How strong, how deep, how graceful, how ravishing, how moving is the work to those modes of our experience? Whether the music is loud or quiet, whether the color is bright or subtle, we must feel and mark how intense, how satisfying is the life that it brings us. Not how deliberately odd or superficially surprising it is. Not how many prizes its maker has won or how many other people have liked it. Not how much it exemplifies some philosophic fashion or au courant technique. Though a collector may see it as potential return on financial investment, or a symbol of his dubious status, I hope, for our own good, that we will see any work of art first and foremost as a means to life, existing in the same world as everything else in our lives, affecting our lives and the whole of life — for better or for worse. (As for what I mean by “life” – that much-abused word — we’ll explore that more in future posts, and not just by mere explanation.)
In art, as in everything else, we concern ourselves too much with how our rooms look, rather than what we do in them, how we live (or die) in them.
If we give close attention to our art experience, we ought to know if it’s drawing us closer to death or to life, in their countless guises. Because that’s what art has the power to do, and that’s what matters most about it.
I won’t cite the various scientific studies showing the powerful and lingering effects that language, images, music and metaphors have on us. If you haven’t recognized that power working in yourself, no data is likely to persuade you of its force. If you have — as I have, time after time, in my personal life, in my artistic life, in my legal practice, in my spirit — then you don’t need a social scientist to convince you of the power of art, or that its power can be either for good or for ill.
Too many writers on art would lead you to believe that art and its value can be comprehended as a botanist identifies a member of a species or a jeweler appraises a gem. Art must be known and valued as we do a living person. Even if they’re seemingly devoted, even if they’re beautiful, we need to know whether or not our conversations with them are fulfilling or inexplicably poisonous, whether their jokes feel good-natured or subtly undermining, whether their counsel and company make us feel more peaceful and assured or drained and depressed. That’s often a difficult to discern. There are so many conventions, illusions, and delusions that keep us from seeing clearly what’s right in front of us, much less what’s going on inside us. But the extent to which we succeed or fail in those attempts can be a matter of life or death. Which is one of the timeless themes of art.
In Dracula, Lucy Westenra is doomed because she fails to recognize the fascinating Count for what he is. (Later, as a matter of fact, we’ll consider the vampires and vampirellas in luxury ad photography.) On the other hand, many of the heroes of our folktales are innocents who recognize the worth of what others regard as beneath their notice. A beggar woman might prove to be a spellbound princess; a fish on a hook might have kingdoms to confer in exchange for acts of kindness.
In our realm of photography, Edward Weston sensed the potential glory in a pepper sitting on the table in his hilltop shack (the great “Pepper No. 30”). In a New York bar, Robert Frank noticed how a jukebox glowed with an eerie, preternatural light (“Bar – New York City” from The Americans). And they managed by their art to make them glow inside us, too.
Tales of dangers and wonders await. But enough for now, my friends.