I was watching an artist paint today…..or rather I watched an artist study his painting today…..for he spent more time looking than painting. I asked what he was thinking about as he stood there looking at his painting. He replied “I’m looking at the balance of color. This yellow starts here, divides there, but it’s not really separated because it’s part of the bigger whole. These smaller sections could be complete paintings in their own right, but together they become more than the sum of the parts. ” It may be one of those “you had to be there” quotes, but looking at the painting while he spoke, I understood exactly what he meant.
However had I been looking at the painting on my own, without his insight, I’m not sure that I would have seen that particular play of the yellow paint. That’s despite the fact that I work in the art world, I’ve seen thousands of pieces of artwork, studied them in great detail and discussed the merits or otherwise of art with many artists.
Art can benefit from a lot of attention in terms of time and effort. Yet today, I’m not sure how much attention viewers are able to devote to art such as paintings and sculptures in museums and galleries. In a world where web pages have only a 6 second window to grab the attention of a person, how long is Joe or Jane public going to devote to studying a painting?
I heard the story recently of a couple visiting the Louvre during their Grand European Tour. The wife went up as close as she was able to the Mona Lisa, took out her lipstick and touched up her lips while looking at herself in the protective glass in front of the Da Vinci painting. She then turned to her husband and said “shall we go and get some lunch now honey?” The Mona Lisa had been “done” in probably less than 30 seconds.
The Louvre administration have also changed the protective glass so that the millions of people who come and photograph the famous painting so that they can look at the image when they get home, don’t get a reflective glare that used to occur with the previous pane. It’s probably not so that they study the work, but so they can tick off the “got the T-shirt/photo” to-do item on their list. They might as well have stayed at home and seen it on the internet or in an art book from the library….it would have been a heck of a lot cheaper!
Many museums around the world are struggling with this issue. Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times talks of tourists spending less than a minute in front of any one object at the Louvre on a recent visit “only a 17th-century wood sculpture of a copulating couple, from San Cristobal in the Solomon Islands, placed near an exit, caused several tourists to point, smile and snap a photo, but without really breaking stride.”
The Australian, Jonathan Mills who has been director of the Edinburgh Festival for 3 years this week was quoted in The Times that “the trivialization of British life has left millions of people subsisting on a cultural diet of “white bread without the crusts…….Sportsmen such as David Beckham are more widely respected than leading scientists and great artists, partly because we can no longer be bothered to understand what the scientists and artists do.”
So what does this mean for the artist who spends hours creating his work, agonizing or emoting over each and every stroke of the brush or tap of the chisel? If art is a form of communication, are we missing part of the message? Or does the many strokes, taps or molding with the fingers build to make a broad stroke concept or idea? Do we have to understand the grammar and know the spelling to understand the spoken message?
In all probability the more we understand the fundamentals of the artist’s work, the more likely we are to understand his message. However as in all forms of communication, the listener’s interpretation will have an impact. The more the listener understands the artist’s work; their values and influences, the better they will appreciate the message.
It makes me wonder if I’m missing a message from Constable now when I look at the “The Hay Wain”….is there more to this than the bucolic English countryside? Is there a political message about those farm laborers in the far right distance of the painting in light of the start of the industrial revolution? I don’t think so, but we don’t know for sure.
Anyway, in this day and age of information overload, how are we able to allocate enough attention to all the artwork that we see to do justice to the effort that the artists put into creating the work? How do we prioritize which we study and which we don’t? It’s a little bit like an interview….most interviewers they say make a judgment in the first 5 seconds of meeting a potential employee. It’s a little like web pages….they have to grab our attention in those first 6 seconds or we’ve clicked on to the next site. If we don’t like or are not intrigued or shocked enough by the overall impression, we’ll have moved on to the next object.
So what happens to all those art objects that are created and then not studied but glossed over? Their messages are lost in the ether….perhaps like the millions of posts which are created in blogs every day and never read…….the constant messages that are sent daily into the universe in the hope that another living planet will be out there in the unknown waiting to here from us.
Is it worth the effort to create? Of course the artist has no choice but to create and try and communicate. They can only hope that there is someone out there who can make the time and effort to appreciate the message. It’s why I like dealing in contemporary art…I can always double check with the artist about what they were thinking and why. Guessing is fun, but it’s better to get it straight from the source….but the problem often is that even they can’t always remember what they were trying to say! Hey what hope have the rest of us have?!
“So what does the ‘not- really-divided-but-separate’ yellow signify in your painting?”