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Why We Look at Art: An Appreciation


by Sherrye Cohn

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Have you ever picked up a book about art that focused on history, biography, formal analysis, or the genealogy of styles and said:  That’s all very interesting but what does it have to do with me?  Stated more broadly the question becomes:  What role does the viewer play in this discussion?  Does it not seem that the experience of art is often ignored or matters not at all?

Why We Look at Art: An Appreciation aims to restore to viewers the central role we play in our own viewing. 

Written by an art historian, it is not a work of art history, and though it tells the truth, it is not exactly nonfiction.  Consisting of brief meditations on key works of Western painting, this book presents the experience of art as a psychological event—one which is shaped by what we see and what we bring to the act of seeing. 

As an organizing principle, it uses subject matters that reward direct viewing and require no prior knowledge, as myth and history paintings do.  It sidesteps the layers of argument that surround any great work in order to plumb the depths of pictorial expression and focus on its unique gift.  The emphasis is not on intent but on result, not on reasons but on response, finding meaning in the means.  Rather than reconstructing the intricate web of cause and effect from which a painting emerged, this book stresses the importance of experiencing art before it becomes a footnote to facts and it maintains that we miss more of what art is by not feeling than by not knowing.

Art appreciation is not an objective science.  It cannot be measured, quantified or even proved, for it is founded upon experiences which are personal and subjective. Thus, the essays that follow are necessarily personal and subjective as well. They are intended to model what aesthetic experience might look like—its texture, range, feel—and the experiences described are of course mine.  They are neither right nor wrong, but the important thing to remember is that you will have your own.  Our experiences will differ in their specifics, but the paintings that give rise to them provide the common ground. 

No mere stimulus for random imaginings, they are the active agents that shape, discipline and inform our response.

Seventy years ago when art history was taking shape as an intellectual discipline, the information it offered was meant to move us, the viewers, from a vague to a specific appreciation.  Today the means have become the end; the tail is wagging the dog.  The connection between art history and the experience of art has never seemed so remote.  Believing that we will appreciate a work of art because we can recite the events surrounding its creation is one of the greatest failures of our education.  Our culture’s blind faith in objectivity (does anyone dispute the label Information Age?) and cavalier dismissal of subjectivity (does not the very word sound like a reproach?) has created a situation that is sadly lopsided.  When art is viewed solely as a historical object or cultural artifact, it becomes a mere result, one more link in the long chain of influence rather than a living presence which speaks to us still.  It is not a matter of either/or but both/and. The time has come to redress the balance between fact and feeling, learning and understanding, information and intuition

A relationship with art, like any relationship, is co-created and it will depend less on knowledge than receptivity.  Similarly aesthetic experience is not something we earn point by point after we have become informed by all the secondary sources.  It is psychological, something that comes from inside of us, spontaneous instead of learned, intuitive instead of intellectual, and it is, finally, a mystery.  Indeed, how, why are we moved by the assertive contrast of light and dark in a Copley portrait, the radical composition of a Cotán still life, the cold blue shadows in one of Monet’s winter scenes?  We cannot explain their effect, only point, notice and, above all, feel. Let me be clear: 

        Knowing about art and taking deep pleasure in it are not synonymous. 

Can aesthetic experience ever be enhanced by learning?  Yes.  Can aesthetic experience ever be inhibited by learning?  The answer is also yes.  Looking at art is a complex perceptual process in which learning may and intuition must play a role.  The danger of “misreading” a work is hardly worse than the deadening of feeling that comes from its intellectualization.  

Why look at art anyway?  I believe we look at art in order to be changed, to receive revelations of a visual sort that enlarge and enrich our sensibilities.  In the sweep of a line, the contrast of hues, the dynamics of form and the subject itself, art reveals there is a knowledge to be had in the look of things.  And this knowledge, this qualitative perception, is what brings us back and back again. 

How else to explain the great enigma:  Why does art endure?  Transcending the limits of rational, everyday thought, it carries us to states of soul long forgotten and opens chambers of the heart we never even knew existed.  A tall order to be sure but why else will the great works be around longer than you or I?  Because some how they tap into the depths of our being and remind us of our essential humanity. 

Initially we may expect the art to reach out to us—to stir our feelings, stimulate our thoughts, arouse our imagination, but eventually we must reach out to it, meeting the art on its level in order to assimilate its gift. The experience may begin with the personal, something that strikes a familiar chord, a face we have seen, a place we have been, but ultimately the experience of art goes beyond the personal.  Habitual patterns of seeing temporarily cease, a veil lifts and we attend as we never have before.  Aesthetic experience is a moment of heightened being, but there is nothing momentary about it.  It is the consummation of who we are—all we have thought felt, seen, heard over the course of our lifetime, wherever we have traveled in the world outside and the world inside.  Our own response is the beginning and the enduring basis of art appreciation.

In the chapters that follow, I have minimized historical references which are amply provided in other sources and discussed each work as it seems to me today.  I have tried to use only the visual evidence, as any beginner must, and always to ask these questions:  What does the work of art want me to know?  By what means does it strike a responsive chord?  What is its gift?  Why We Look at Art: An Appreciation rev­­eals that appreciation comes by connecting to the sensuous wisdom that exists in all of us.  Its goal is to simply point, to reach the timeless essence that allows the past to live in the present, and to confirm that the viewer already has what it takes to experience art on his or her own terms. 

The place to begin is within.

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