I don’t remember the first time I encountered art, but I remember I always preferred the representational stuff — the stuff that looked like something. So for example, I’d prefer a realistic portrait or sculpture to an abstract painting or modern piece. In fact, when it came to abstract art, the only stuff I liked was the kind of work that messed with my perspective or stuff that just looked nice. The rest of the stuff was just confusing and I tended to ignore it.
This went on for many years, until I read Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer believed that the world was full of suffering, all of which was due to the will. This will was something that could be temporarily quieted by contemplating works of art. I thought that was interesting, and decided that I’d have to try to contemplate art “one of these days”.
Much later, I read some of the articles on Steve Armstrong’s blogs. His perspective on art was interesting, and I decided that I’d have to go check out some abstract art “one of these days”.
What finally did it was when I happened upon this article, which made a case for abstract art contemplation.
“One of these days” finally came.
A Trip to the Museum
A few weeks later, I went to an art museum and headed straight for the abstract section. My mind was open, my judgment suspended, my attitude receptive. I was here to LOOK.
And look I did. I saw a lot of stuff, but the stuff that made the most impression fell into two classes, which I’ll call the Rorschachs and the waking dreams.
The Rorshachs were like faces in clouds; they almost looked like something. I kept trying to see the “faces”. Sometimes I did, and they were bizarre. Other times, I simply watched myself trying to find them.
The waking dreams on the other hand were representational images in nonsensical juxtapositions. They looked like dreams and they evoked the most interesting experiences in me. For example, while viewing one piece I had what can best be described as a waking dream. I suddenly knew what was outside the world of the painting, which made the whole painting click in an epiphany. Then the dream and the epiphany vanished, and I struggled to bring back that “aha!” of a second ago. Another piece invoked a feeling/memory from my childhood that never happened but felt like it should have. It was vague yet precise. It should have happened when I was 7, but the memory is more of a feeling-tone during a long period, a non-existent era. I felt nostalgic for a part of my past that never was, and mourned this never-was. That feeling was more persistent; I can still feel it now.
Yet despite my attempt at being receptive, my mind was racing. I still kept trying to get images, or cling to fascinating feelings or emotions the paintings invoked in me. Worse, I kept second guessing. Questions that went through my head:
- What does it mean?
- Is this what the artist intended me to feel?
- Is this really art?
- Couldn’t I just stare at clouds or other random arrangements and get this experience?
- Couldn’t I view this stuff online?
- Am I taking it seriously only because it’s in a museum?
But why was I asking? If I had an experience, why couldn’t I leave well enough alone and enjoy the experience for its own sake? Why was I now going to things outside experience to justify or even decide if I was “allowed” to appreciate the experience?
Besides, wasn’t every act of perception shaped by innumerable conditions? For example, if I see a movie, aren’t my expectations part of the process, and don’t they shape my viewing experience accordingly? If I enjoyed a movie because of its originality, isn’t that only because I did not see comparable movies that preceded it? I think fondly of the songs of my youth because of the whole matrix of experiences that made me value pop culture then — they were no better than songs of today. Even my breakfast can alter my mood and change how I perceive the rest of the day.
Experience and events are a product of causes, yet it is common to focus on thing as the cause, especially where people are concerned. In viewing the art, I was trying to assign a single cause for my reaction — the “art itself”. I was doing this because I was trying to judge the art, rather than taking the whole day as a full experience in all its complexity. Yet, everything contributed to my experience. The way the museum looked. The fact that I was physically there, the curators, the creaky floors, the art, what I read to inspire me, and so on.
Recently, livelysceptic wrote this post on music. When I read it, I had an epiphany; I had long appreciated one type of abstract art — music! Music without lyrics was the abstract counterpart to music with lyrics. Music sans lyrics was abstract, it communicated feelings, and I never had a problem simply letting go with it. For whatever reason, I didn’t do this with the visual stuff.
Abstraction is the process of isolating the essence of something. For example, addition is the abstraction of the common operation of accumulating things like apples or oranges. Maybe abstract art is the abstraction of a feeling from the concrete media (like representational painting or story) that normally delivers it? If it works, it may be the closest thing to a direct, wordless thought transmission and may be the only way to truly communicate the ineffable to those who get it. Of course what people get may not be what was intended…
Maybe I still do not “get” abstract art. I still do not know what art is. However, I enjoyed my experience, and learned a bit more about just being. That is enough.