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Detail from Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Illiam: The Fire that Consumes All Before It, 1978, © the Philadelphia Museum of Art
It’s next time again.
“I don’t really know anything about art, but I know what I like!”
This noble phrase, for many of us, has been a call to adventure to the alluring world of art. My friend, the art historian, Peter Weller likes to quote a very famous art scholar, E. H. Gombrich who in reference to this rather innocent phrase says,
“You know what you like and you like what you know.”
As someone with a life-long fascination with art, Sir Gombrich really knew what he was talking about. His The Story of Art remains one of the most used textbooks in the world. His statement is not so innocent. It speaks to the larger issues of intimidation, the cultivation of taste, connoisseurship and how one distinguishes good art from bad. His comment applies to all art but even more to Contemporary Art. The “shock of the new” is part of art’s charm but it can also be a barrier to entry. “Liking what you know” really pokes a finger in my eye. But in my experience, I have found this to be a great truth about art and about life.
I’m struggling with this so I am really interested in what you think. Does knowing more about an artist, a painting, a musical composition, a building, or a style increase your enjoyment of the work?
In my case, I have found this invariably to be true. One great thinker told me I was addicted to the gratification of knowledge. Guilty as charged.
Imagine my shock, then, when some of the art history people I know and admire disparaged the descriptors used in museums. “Don’t read all that stuff, just look at the picture and experience it first hand.” In all its naked glory, I suppose. I found this to be strange and rather contradictory advice from these people with their sterling educations and pedigrees filled with impressive degrees. “Easy for you to say!” I wanted to scream. “Some of us need a little help over here with this stuff!”
Their side of the argument plays out like this. They don’t want the “experiment” to be sullied. As if they were using the scientific method, they don’t want you to make the ghastly mistake of invalidating the purity of the process with any preconceptions. This is sort of like the experience you might have had of taping a football game to watch later. Before you’ve had the chance to watch it, you find yourself desperately shouting to people, with your fingers in your ears, “Just shut up! Don’t tell me the score!” The game is the same, but your perception really changes if you already know how it ends. Another example is not wanting to read the “spoiler alert” before going to see the thriller. They would argue further, your unvarnished insight is every bit as worthwhile and valid as the “experts.”
On the other hand, going to see an exhibition without knowing anything about it is, for me, like watching a chess match when you don’t even know how to play the game. If I don’t know the rules, how am I supposed to have anything close to the experience of the aficionado next to me who is gasping in ecstasy with every genius move? I believe the more you know about almost anything you might enjoy, take your pick – basketball, cooking, music, chess, whatever – the more likely you are to enjoy it.
I’ll give you an example. There is a exhibition, Turner in Italy at the Palazzo Diamanti in Ferrara. I didn’t think I liked Turner all that much, but, over the years, in learning about him and experiencing his paintings, I have become a huge fan. I see him as someone breaking all sorts of boundaries. He is, for me, a perfect example of art at a crossroads. His early work is very pictorial and exact. He delights in capturing, in the days before photography, the realism of a scene. Then he comes to Venice, and in just five days – during which he makes 160 sketches – his mind gets blown by the famous Venetian light and his work becomes transformed.
Peter Ackryod, in a short biography, explains how Turner in Venice for the first time, “executed some wonderful water-colours of the Venetian morning, where the translucent and ethereal light of the city is evoked in washes of blue and yellow. That sense of light never left him. It irradiates much of the rest of his work. His oil-paintings of Venice, completed at a later date, glow upon the wall as if a bright light were shining through them. The effect of Venice upon him was altogether profound and seemed to grow in intensity as the years passed.”
Ackroyd goes on to describe, “. . . the vaporous sublime, in which the material world is wreathed in a veil of majesty and in which the laying down of pure color elicits the most powerful and profound responses. He was trying to create a new sense of form as an inalienable property of light.”
I read Ackroyd’s Turner, before I went to the exhibition. It allowed me to take great joy in thinking about so many aspects of Turner’s life and work. I found out there is a daguerreotype of Turner taken in the late 1840’s by a man named Mayall. Turner was fascinated with the photographer’s prints of rainbows over Niagara Falls. Just imagine! Turner looking rapt at this breathtakingly modern, never before seen, photographic depiction of the spectrum in thin air.
What if he could have seen it in color? He must have loved holding the photographic evidence of the ethereal. This sort of light filled his late work which was all about the depiction of “prismatic color”, vapor, mist and fog. What we see as abstract, or impressionistic, he may have seen as just another stab at realism. Turner’s life is just on the cusp of the new era of photography, and his art is a bellwether of turbulent seas in the art world.
In the coming years, art needed to be even more than just a faithfully rendered representation. One scholar points out Turner starts what Monet finishes. His most daring canvases, painted in his later years, are shockingly modern. To me, they look every bit as exhilarating as a gorgeous Cy Twombly. Standing in front of Turner’s pictures, in the Ferrara museum, I was astonished. What in the world did people think of him back in 1845 when these abstract, out of focus, bleary, outrageously obscure canvases were not yet dry? I’m sure that he was deeply wounded at being called a madman. Thanks to Ackroyd’s research, I knew even more about Turner’s courage. His mother had died in an insane asylum. Ackroyd pondered how vicious this particular criticism must have been for him and my experience of the paintings was enhanced, not diminished, by knowing these details.
Reading about his life before I saw the exhibition made it a hundred times more thrilling for me. On the other hand, is my clumsy pursuit of knowledge eclipsing a more rarified and subtle experience? Am I looking for clarity when I should be enjoying the fog?
What is your experience? Both of these points of view are valid. In discussing this with my Venetian friend, Tudi Samartini, who writes about art and who as a girl of twelve served the great art historian Bernard Berenson his tea, she said, “But art is not a chess game. It is not all about being intellectual, there are emotional aspects as well.” Ok, ok, I get it. I over-intellectualize everything, tell me something I don’t know. What about you? Do you find that knowing more increases or decreases your experience – emotional, intellectual or otherwise?
I honestly do feel art is much more than the gratification of knowledge. It is more than gratification period. This gets pretty sticky pretty quickly. Gratification of knowledge is a quote from Kant. He writes about the hungry man looking at pictures of food. Kant wants to know about the essential reality of the food independent of the hunger. I think the hunger is a euphemism for lust. He might as well be talking about the lustful man looking at nudes – the male gaze. Graham Greene has a great phrase for this. His main character, who is on a train, is looking at a woman down the corridor and Greene observes,“he would have regarded her as a game for the senses.”
I think there is much more in art than a game for the senses. Beauty stands apart from lust as food stands apart from hunger, but that doesn’t mean a great meal is not all the more satisfying when you are hungry. Is this perhaps where the phrase, “thirst for knowledge” becomes quenched?
You can see I’m rather tied up in knots about all this. I’m hoping your insights and experiences will untangle this mess.