Art Essay: Looking at Art: A Guide for the (Understandably) Perplexed
Part I- Image-making
By Raymond J. Steiner
ART TIMES Summer 2013
IF MAKING AN image made “sense” to a caveman, then it ought to make “sense” to us. No one today really knows why that first caveman took a stick with a burnt end and drew images of buffalo on his cave wall. Chances are, he didn’t know why he did it himself. It is fun to speculate, though.
There are those who argue—and, at times, persuasively—that it was a form of “magic” performed by early man. A “sympathetic” magic that set up analogies between man and his natural environment. If one were to draw buffalo on the cave walls, so the theory goes, buffalo would be sighted in the real world—and food would once again be in abundance. Depicting stick-figured men felling the animals with spears and arrows, then, would somehow bring about an analogous success to the hunters of the tribe.
Whether this is true or not cannot actually be proved at this distance in time, but it does seem less likely that those early cave-wall depictions of animals and men were intended as aesthetic dalliances at wine and cheese receptions meant only for pleasure. The fact is, no one truly knows and it would not be for a very long time before anyone even thought about discussing these pictures—at least as “pictures.” Mankind would be making pictures—with more or less sophistication as time went by—for centuries (some estimate about 35,0000 years!) before someone thought it important enough to write about. We’ll return to this in a later chapter when we look at artwriting, but suffice it to say for now that, as far as we can tell, no one cared much about who made images and how or why or to what degree of skill they made them.
What is known is that image-making seems to be an old pastime of mankind, and evidences of this craft have been found around the world. In addition to cave-drawings, people have uncovered and unearthed not only carved incisions on stones and cliff-faces, but, in more sophisticated civilizations, painted images on the insides of tombs, the walls of houses and even on such artifacts as vases, bowls and urns. Eventually these image-makers would stop attempting to duplicate what he could see—faces, animals, plants—and begin to make designs. Abstract imagery such as geometric shapes or stylized patterns of curling vines or leafy branches were both imprinted on fabrics or sewn into them with what seems to be painstaking care.
At some point in this image-making activity, probably after learning how to make weapons, our ancestors discovered that they could also make images in three-dimensions. They had already learned that they could form arrow or spear heads; the step to forming images of animals and people would not be far behind. Early man carved rocks and bones and sticks and animal teeth, replicating forms and figures that they saw in nature. They even made images of things that they could only imagine: gods and demons and fantastic man-animals and man-gods. Eventually they found that they could also manipulate malleable earth and make similar figures by molding them with their hands. The hands of some persons made these images and whether for magical reasons or simple decoration, the urge to make them seems to answer a deep universal need in mankind.
As doubtful as the reason may be for those first image-makers to begin their creating, there seems relatively little doubt that the act of looking at images is even more wide-spread than is the need to make them. Even the most inartistic, the most inept among us able to “draw a straight line,” find the business of plain old looking a natural one. Almost all children “look” around and draw stick figures and crude representations of faces. Some go even further to draw dogs and cats and trees and suns beaming down from cotton-ball, cloud-filled skies. Though most become side-tracked somewhere along the way, intent on exploring new worlds to conquer with no desire to become “artists,” they may still doodle while speaking on the phone making deals or sitting at their desks buying and selling stocks. And, even when their hands stop “creating,” they continue to “find” images in shifting clouds and water-stained walls or ceilings—even inside their own heads—as their minds wander — or dream.
We see profiles, eyes, ears, noses, mouths in random markings of nature and, at times, even in geological formations. Mountain and hill features are given anthropomorphic names such as “sleeping man,” “Anthony’s nose,” “Grand Tetons” (Large Breasts), and the like. I was once shown seven hills in Germany’s Rhineland and told that it was these very protuberances of the earth that were the inspiration for the story of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Even the most literal-minded, the most unimaginative, the least frivolous of us all, will “image make” when we fall asleep, creating “pictures” while we dream. So, whether we make them or make up stories about them or simply notice them, mankind has had a long association with images. They are, to use a modern phrase, one of the most “user friendly” things we come across in our lives.
Some images have managed to so intertwine with our every-day living that we are not even aware that we are not only looking at but using images from moment to moment. Ever follow an arrow painted on a wall or sign? Slow down when you see a curved line on a yellow sign along a highway? Looked around to see if there actually were any of those “animals” around that were painted on road signs? Well, these are just a few examples of the “abstract art” we’ve learned to rely on without ever really giving it much thought. An “arrow” painted in an “up” position seems to convey a fairly simple message. Yet, if we think about it, the concept is a very sophisticated one. Not only is the painted “arrow” unlike any real arrow, chances are not one in ten thousand who have followed it has ever held an actual arrow in his hand. Yet we know that simple image suggests movement and direction. When coupled with other symbols—whether pictures or words—it also indicates what is to be found when we make movement in the direction to which the arrow points. How’d we do that?
Here’s where we come to one of the more interesting things about images—they not only attract us, they communicate with us. They tell us things — go left, or up, or over there. In fact, communicating through images is older than communicating through language. Yep…the simple fact is, image-making is older than speech — by how many thousands of years, we can only guess, but we do know that it was for quite a while. Ever think of why we give children picture books before they can read? Well, there you are. Some, in fact, even believe today that image-making or “art”—in any of its forms—is a surer way of communicating to others than with words. Ever think of the U.N.? Well, maybe ‘nuff said, there. Anyway, we all know that a certain painting, piece of music, or dance movement can move us — i.e. communicate, let’s say, joy, or anger, or surprise, or fear, for example, a heck of a lot faster—and clearer—than some long-winded critic can.
Well, like I’ve been saying…looking at images is second nature to us because they tell us things that, in most cases, we “get”—we understand them. From early times, the “powers that be” knew this—the leaders, the governors, the churches—and used them to communicate to the illiterate. In the Renaissance, for example, churches were filled with paintings—images—that “told” the stories of the Bible to congregations that could not read the written word. The pictures “spoke” to the people—and they understood them. In other cultures, even their alphabets were composed of “pictures”—pictograms, ideograms—images that helped make the transition from illiterate to literate.
It is when we separate some images from the millions we interact with every day and give them the label of “art” that many of us find a wall begin to come up between us and “it.” Sure, I might enjoy my kids’ scrawls, you might say, but when it comes to “art” with a capital “A,” I’m completely lost. Well, let’s take a more gradual transition and take a closer look at some of the image-making that falls somewhere between children’s scrawls and Michelangelo’s ceiling paintings in the Sistine Chapel.
We look at and learn from—even enjoy—images that fill our lives—we come across them in story books, comic strips, movies, television, and magazines; we see them on road signs and billboards and banners; we see them in toys and curtain designs and photo albums and fabric patterns. In short, we see them everywhere. They only become troublesome for some when they are called “Art.”
Why should this be so? What line is crossed when an artist moves from making comic strip characters to painting a picture of a landscape? Why can some make the step over that line—that is, enjoy looking at paintings or sculpture as well as reading the latest Spiderman comic or Field and Stream—while others fear the leap?
And what further line is crossed when an artist moves from making pictures that are recognizable as objects we see every day—objects like people, trees, boats or birds—to making non-representational pictures—so-called “abstract” art—that depict only lines and colors? Why can some move quite easily from looking at the one kind to the other while some others throw up their hands in disgust? Does it have something to do with the artist, the art or with the viewer?
Must all image-making be representational—that is, “look like” something we are already familiar with before we can enjoy it? Before it “communicates” something to us? How about images of monsters, and dragons, and ogres, and angels, and unicorns, and elves, and fairies? Or animals that wear clothes like us and even talk like us? And how about that Batman guy? Have any of us ever actually seen an angel or a talking bear that complained of someone eating his porridge or setting his woods on fire? How about a fifteen-foot seated Buddha or life-sized crucified Jesus? Have you ever actually seen either? Who determined that Buddha or Jesus really “looked like” that?
Or take a seascape. Do you think that each wave, each cloud, that the precise yaw of the ship or the billowing of its sails were exactly as the artist depicted? Do you think he or she might have fudged just a little? Took a little leeway and altered a wave, a cloud, or a full sail? Or must a painting be like a photograph and record only what “is there”? And while we’re at it, can a photograph be called “art”?
So, although you might look for a one-to-one relationship in, say, a portrait, an “exact” replication of a given face, no one really expects an artist to act like a camera. First of all he can’t. Second of all, when you think about it for a moment, not even a “realistic” portrait has a one-to-one relationship. And third, not even a camera can make an exact reproduction. Without going into a lot of technical jargon and explanation here, let’s just say that a picture is flat while a real face on a real head is not. Well, what about a head modeled in clay or carved out of stone or wood, you might ask. Sorry. Exact duplication is not even possible here.
What is possible is an approximation of reality. There was a time when imitation of nature was the be-all and end-all of image-making, but even at its very, very best, no one tries to jump into a lake in a painting or eat the fruit in a still life. I doubt if even the ancient Greeks were as fooled by art as their old story about the birds who were duped into picking at the grapes painted by one of their masters implies. Realistic is one thing. Real is quite another.
The truth is, all art is an abstraction of reality just as the word “food” is an abstraction of the real thing. Now this word ‘abstraction” might be a problem at first for some, if only because of the label “Abstract Art” given to some modern art. “Abstract Art” (and from here on, whenever I’m speaking about such art, I’ll use capital letters to differentiate it from the general meaning of “abstract”) is a term commonly applied to art that is non-representational—that is, art that does not attempt to depict a tangible thing like a person, an apple or a sailboat. For simplicity’s sake, let’s just say that “Abstract Art” is usually thought of today as art that has only formless shapes and colors in it.
Now, a great many people don’t like “Abstract Art” precisely because it is non-representational. They don’t like it because they can’t see things in it—no people or dogs or trees or flowers. They can’t find any meaning in those shapeless blobs of color. “What does it say?” they want to know. “What is being communicated to me?”
Well, reams of paper have been filled with answers to such questions, but the truth is there are no real answers. Artwriters have been busily trying to convince people that they ought not try to find “meaning” in art, but that they ought to simply enjoy it. A common retort to people who look for meaning in art is: “Consider the song of a bird. It doesn’t have to mean anything—just enjoy it!” True—perhaps—but birdsong does mean something to another bird. And the person who wants “meaning” in his art, expects the same from his fellow man. He wants others—even artists—to communicate to him.
Truth be told, we simply can’t know what every image, word, sound, person, or event “means”. Not everything in our world “communicates” to us. We like—enjoy—understand—some images, some foods, some people…and that’s that. We select based on what we know and what we’ve experienced. It’s what being a unique human being is all about!
Still, in a way, those who tell you to stop hunting for meaning and simply enjoy have a point. Not everything has to be analyzed for us to enjoy it. I recall a music apreciation course I once took, in which the instructor had us so minutely dissect a piece of music, that, it well nigh made it impossible for me to “step back” and hear it as a whole again. We have a tendency to over analyze everything today, as if being able to explain a thing was the same as understanding it. To talk about love can be romatically poetic, uplifting. But, as every woman comes to know, in direct proportion to the elaboration of his clinical patter as to why he is in love, then so much has he fallen out of love. So, being able to name a thing—no matter how glib or elaborate the definition—does not necessarily mean that we know that thing. Explanation is given in place of passion. In short, there are those who know and those who talk.
As for Abstract Art, Jungian psychology has told us that there are shapes and colors to which we subconsciously respond, whether we recognize that we are doing so or not. Theoretically, when we are first confronted with a painting, we initially respond to shape and color, and then notice that it is, say, a picture of a boat tied to a pier under a sunny sky. Purists will say that, in fact, as soon as you begin noticing what those blobs and colors signify—that is, water and boats and clouds—you are no longer looking at the painting but at the subject of the painting. This subtle difference need not overly concern us here, but, as you spend more time with looking at pictures yourself, you might want to come back to these ideas and ponder them at your liesure.
For now, however, there is no requirement to like these non-representational pictures (or even representational art, for that matter)—you need only look at them. If you find yourself responding to certain forms or colors, all well and good. If not, just move on to the next room where paintings of recognizable objects—or different colors—might be exhibited. Given enough time, you might even find yourself drawn to “Abstract Art” in the future—if only to figure out for yourself what others are finding to look at. I still recall my own first reaction to such art. After voicing my opinion, a teacher recommended that I try an experiment. “Hang a picture of Marilyn Monroe—the famous calendar pose—on one wall of your room,” he suggested, “and on the opposite wall, hang an Abstract Painting. See which one attracts your attention after a period of time.” Well, I have to admit that Marilyn held my attention for quite awhile, but the truth is I kept coming back to that piece of Abstract Art—if only to try and figure out what I was missing. Familiarity, as they say, often does bring—if not exactly contempt—a certain amount of boredom. I mean, how long can you look at a picture of a sailing ship with the same amount of excitement as the first time? What holds us is the fantasies that occur in our minds—of either being on the sea or with Marilyn—and—and this is important—not the actual work of art.
The truth is, that images—whether “readable” or not—do have an impact on us—they “communicate” to us, even if it is on an unconscious level. We fall in love with a person and, more often than not, do so on the basis of infinitesimal variations in the shape of a nose, the curve of a breast, the outline of an eye. We respond on a “gut” level—as Jung argues—to archetypal forms that we can barely identify or are even aware of. This subliminal level of reaction is probably the basis of our overall response to image-making in the first place. Artists have long known this, and part of their art is to make us so respond—to stop, to look, to enjoy…to “get” what they are trying to “say”.
So pervasive is our predilection to respond to images that some philosophers have warned of the dangers of our doing so. Plato, for example, would have banned artists (and poets) from his ideal Republic precisely because of this power of images. For Plato, the world was already a place of images, each piece of objective phenomenon a shadow-image of some otherworldly realm of ideal reality. Each individual chair, for instance, strives to imitate an ideal form of chair that exists only in the ideal world. The world of things, therefore, is only a world of “shades,” unreal phantoms that are doomed to change and eventual destruction. Man’s job, according to Plato, is to pierce this world of illusion and to strive for the world of ideal truth and beauty. The artist must be banished since, by making images of images, he merely confuses man and places one more obstacle in his search for truth. Happily—at least for artists—Plato’s thoughts about art and artists didn’t take strong hold and, although we don’t exactly always make it easy for artists to live, we don’t banish them from the kingdom either. Whether or not you agree with Plato, we still today are aware of the power of images; consider, as an obvious example, most bans on pornography that are the “law of the land” in many states.
Finally, as long as we’re talking about artists, let’s move our focus from the product to the producer. If you are not daunted by being confronted by either your offspring or his scrawling, why, then, should you be so by the artist or his works? Whether painter, sculptor, filmmaker or whatever, they are still only image-makers and, as we have seen, images are so much a part of our lives that there can be no danger in allowing some of them into our lives. Surely, there is no reason for any one of us to be intimidated by either the professional image-makers or by their products.
In our next issue, let’s take a closer look at these professionals. Let’s look at artists.