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To Understand a Painting, You Need a Chair
Imagine John Clease bounding onto the stage at the Old Stratford just as Brutus is sinking the knife into Julius Caesar. “Stay in your seats! This is not a murder. Brutus is only sticking a plastic thing under Julius Caesar’s arm. Yes don’t be alarmed, this is not, I repeat not a murder.” This is what Rene Magritte did to painting with his famous piece, “Ce n’est pas un pipe.” Since then, propelled by Warhol and Duchamp, a large portion of the art community have taken this line of mischief to where many would claim that contemporary art is now just a matter of philosophy and theory of art and visuality. The old experiential core of painting is apparently no longer needed – no longer relevant. The mischief is now serious business, filling libraries and art magazines. It is the main pillar of the art establishment.
When curators hang paintings with a heavy thematic construct, when they post large “educational” explanations beside a painting, or when they sell you audiotapes to listen to while you look at paintings, they undermine the relationship between the viewer and the painting. Painting communicates through the power of unnamed substances. It creates a silence inside us in which the imagination has room to travel. A viewer in front of a painting is in a position to have a full-bodied meditation – to be transported and expanded. Philip Guston talked about “reeling with meanings” in front of paintings. The moment needs silence, possibly a chair, some good lighting and a frame that doesn’t distract. Keep the writing for the catalogue or the book — give painting its due.
This is a matter of respect for the artist and the viewer. There is plenty to say about painting, to study, and to write, but first we need to look and taste the painting, letting it warm us and transport us. Art education has to be built around the viewer’s personal experience of the painting. It is about filling out that experience and making the viewer hungry for more. Let people go to the paintings they like, and spend time with them. The first job of art education is teaching people to relax and breathe and to just hang out in front of a painting, teaching them to be open to whatever the painting may do with them. After the viewer has established a personal foothold, then it is time to inform and to explore the experiences he or she is having. If the enterprise of art education and art study is not based on this private reverie, it has lost its relationship with the very core of what it is teaching and studying. The enterprise becomes self-referential and a mutation of its original function. It is like replacing the wedding feast with a dissertation on nutrition and the process of digestion.
This disconnection from the original experience of painting not only affects how art is shown and taught, it undermines the practice and foundations of the whole field. The disembodied theory-based writing that now dominates the field is spawning an art scene of a theory-based art. This community is colored by irony and weariness. The focus of the art produced is to critique and reexamine what already exists. It does not do first hand research outside its own theoretic concerns. It does not draw from, or investigate further, nature and the world around us. It is not about life and it does not seek to expand or explore our experiences as human beings. It is at its core reductive and reactionary. It dissipates the viewer’s experience and negates the artist’s creative possibilities. It is not that we don’t need philosophy and theory of art. It is that the pages of unreadable convoluted discourse that emanates from the art magazines and Art History departments are more about power and position. The art being barely relevant makes the critic, curator or the art historian, indispensable. The big exhibition is centered on the theoretical constructs of the curator, the art merely goes to illustrate the theory that fills the catalogue and dictates the hanging and the selection of the show. This is painting in the service of theory, or more correctly, in the service of careerism. I recently visited our local ICA, which was celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. The director rose to thank the curators and their assistant’s who had made these twenty-five years such a success. Then she stumbled and added sheepishly “Oh yes and the artists.
Novalis said, “Philosophy is really homesickness. It is the urge to be at home everywhere.” The lasting power of philosophy is tied to longing: a longing to understand our relationship with the enormous, indifferent energy of the universe. Its rigor and vitality come from the impossibility of its quest and from its commitment to encounter reality. In this it has much in common with painting. They can be good bedfellows. For this collaboration to work however the philosopher would have to see paintings for what they are: living records of encounters with reality: evidence from archaeological digs down into our communal psyche. The physical energy of creativity alive in painting is a fact of nature – empirical evidence to be examined. The philosopher’s personal experience of painting is no less valuable than his or her personal experience of the universe – just more evidence. The best art theory has been written from this perspective in that it acknowledges both the physical nature of creativity, and the expansive possibilities that are at its core. I think of the work of John Berger. It is writing that is poignant and expansive, full of surprise and vitality while always mindful of the mysterious. It is grounded in the world although it searches out the intangible. It is also very readable.
Our creativity is a natural part of us, and the work we do as artists, is full of possibility. Robert Frost said “there are still sounds that live in the cavern of the mouth that have not yet been brought to book.” There are forms that have not yet been brought to painting. It has not all been done before. All the great artists of history knew this, and felt the pathos of the shortness of life. Scientists, who study nature, are awed by the complexities, scale, and shear beauty of the universe in which we live. It is clear we are only glimpsing a fraction of what is out there and what is inside us. The Arts, at their best, have sought to offer us experience of this sense of possibility. “Moments of extension and hope,” according to Seamus Heaney. The comic richness of James Joyce’s Ulysses takes us out further than any writer before; the twist of the poem catches us by surprise, or the choppy slash of De Kooning’s brushstroke turns us and extends us in ways we could not expect. There is exhilaration and excitement in these moments. The art historical and curatorial fields need to encompass this possibility, this openness. This would mean they would have to return to the humble roll of individual viewer, open to new experience. They would have to stop the fast rotations of their theoretic constructs, and just sit silently in front of a painting. When the heart opens, or when a walk by the ocean quiets us, theory falls away. We just are. This space is at the heart of where painting comes from and how it works. The critical analysis and theoretic exploration have to start from here. Painting is personal and intimate – we follow Rembrandt’s finger through the paint, right there, right now. If the critic is not present and receptive, he or she is in no position to comment on the work.
The viewer of art is offered a holistic experience. He or she is taken out for a ride, engaged through the senses and propelled by the imagination feeding on the medium of the art form. The poets talk about making a temple of the inner ear for sound to echo down through the psyche. Painting goes onto our stomach. It is always palpable physical presence. More than any other art form it speaks directly to the body. It offers us the chance to return to our personal experience of the world, as experienced through our bodies, as a central part of our exploration of what it means to be human. It is a place where our learning and our nature get to coexist.
James Joyce wrote, “There is no limit to creativity except consciousness.*” Our creativity has propelled human evolution. It is our one great resource. The real tragedy of the human race may be currently unfolding as we wallow in denial, playing theoretical head games, at a time when we are destroying the very resources that enable our survival on the planet. It is a time when the arts that foster our creativity and keep us grounded in our corporal experience of the world are most needed. Seamus Heaney, when he received the Nobel Prize, credited poetry for having a restorative effect between the mind’s center and its circumference. He was referring to the flow between the conscious analytical mind, and the broader embodied mind. It is here in these old archaic practices of art making that we have the opportunity to return to the reality of our embodied experiences of the world, to the center of our public discourse. At this moment, in this culture, this is a radical and revolutionary concept. It was Foucault, the French radical who suggested that to understand a painting you need a chair. It is here, seated silently before a painting, honoring our personal response, that we assert the truth of our own experience. In this we challenge the commercial and political discourses that are dedicated to separating us from that reality. Simon Wiel wrote from Paris, as the Nazi armies approached, that the failure of the democracies in the face of Fascism was due to a failure of intellectual and spiritual rigor. It was perhaps an overstatement to blame the fall of France on the Surrealists or for us now to blame the rise of fundamentalism both here and abroad, on the deconstructionists. However it is clear that some intellectual constructs foster creativity and investigation of the world around us, while others hinder it. This may well be a reasonable and practical measure of their value. It is time to sit, look at the paintings, and reevaluate.
*By “consciousness” I take him to mean what we now call the analytical mind.
(Timothy Hawkesworth is an Irish artist who lives and works in the USA, has shown extensively in New York City and around the country, and is included in many public and private collections. You can visit his website at Timothy Hawkesworth.com).
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