How to Talk About Painting

To look at a painting properly, you must be perfectly still, stand directly facing it, and at that distance where you can comfortably see the whole work. Take your time and give it your wholehearted attention. You must project yourself, but as passive, open, expectant, letting the work shape your vision. This is the attitude that the artist took when he or she decided that the work was finished. Eyes become wide, attention spread evenly, mouth slightly open, shoulders slightly slouched back and downward, arms hanging limply. Of course, I am speaking here of an open, actively receptive attitude rather than a physical posture per se or even standing at a specific spot before the picture. It’s all about attitude. One must have the humility to be bedazzled.

What do we want from a painting? Simply put, we want it to come alive, to have a presence, a focused energy, analogous to the experience of having eye contact with another living being; a personal, focused, energy exchange. Here is the reason why that so many of the world’s great paintings are portraits, and among these, so many are self-portraits. The experience of a forcefully, expressive presence in sensual form takes us to a sublimated level high above the conditions and consequences of the world.

This experience is never put into words without profoundly distorting and diminishing its power and specialness. Also, a great artwork has infinite possible meanings, many of which the artist need not even be aware of. So, too, great art changes as we change. New art makes past art look different, and the more we see, the better we see.

Nevertheless, if words and ideas are misleading and fundamentally inadequate, some tropes, or types of rhetoric, or forms of discourse, do prove more useful than others. There are the rhetorics of expression and of genius, which I find most useful. Since art works are open ended and impossible to fully grasp, it is often helpful to use poetic metaphors, images and even myths. Indispensable too, is the rhetoric of form or “formalism”. Its great service is to direct the viewer to the work itself and to induce the proper psychic distance. It is indispensable for teaching and is used in every art school. But formalist rhetoric can be very misleading, and should always be used with caution. Formal analysis all too easily becomes a tidy, pat explanation of how the art “works”, keeping it distant and under control. Further, formalism often assumes that unity or harmony is the ultimate aim of art. But, as I have said, the primary aim of art is to communicate visual energy, emotion and feeling, content, not formal unity per se, however much the latter may be said to make the former possible.

Here is an instructive example of the pitfalls of formalism. Michael Fried, who is probably today’s most renown formalist critic, has written that fourteen feet or so is the is the maximum width that an abstract painting can be and still achieve “the highest quality”, still have the most “efficacy.” This leads Fried to see Pollock’s greatest achievement, the three heroic paintings of 1950 (“Number 32”, fifteen feet wide and “One: Number 31” plus “Autumn Rhythm: Number 30”, both of which are seventeen feet wide) as extreme efforts to overcome their debilitating width. (He also downgrades Pollocks amazing scroll or frieze shaped picture, presumably on similar grounds.) So too, Fried’s rule would exclude some of the most amazing achievements of abstract painting since W.W. II. A list would include Larry Poons’ “Railroad Horse”, 1971, 25 feet long; Friedel Dzubas, “Sun Spoke”, 1967, 30 feet long; and Dzubas’ most audacious picture, “Crossing”, 1975, 57 feet long (four times Fried’s limit). There are lots of other examples too by Helen Frankenthaler, Joseph Drapell, Lucy Baker, Gerhard Richter to name just a few. How could Fried come to such a restrictive rule for the painter? It’s because he relies too heavily on the notion that a painting must be seen “at a single glance.” Clement Greenberg called this “instantaneous unity”. Following on from this, one might deduce that the wider the picture, the further back the viewer must stand to see the work as a whole. But the further back one goes, the more one loses touch with the palpable surface, in Fried’s terminology the work become more “optical”. The solution to this conundrum is surely that after perusing the work up close, our longer or “proper” view becomes informed by the up close experience. In any event, the issue is not the literal length of a picture but rather the relation of the internal dynamics of the painting to its size and shape. Also, in some artworks, the difference between the up close and “proper” view is itself part of its miracle.

Fried adumbrates another rationale for his fourteen foot limit. He writes “Courbet’s Burial at Ornans’, taking advantage of the module of the slightly larger – than-life human figure, is just 22 feet wide, without the least sense of strain.” Here the point seems to be that the abstract picture has a 1 to 1 ratio of scale to the viewer’s body and therefore must be smaller than a figurative picture which can offer multiple “modules”. But this too is utterly refuted by “Passages” and the other enormous pictures I just cited. Fried’s example shows how easily formalism can wind up making rules for the artist. But, as Kant wrote, it’s the artistic genius who “gives the rule to art”, not the critic. The critic must judge “without concept.”

A related kind of formalism is “truth to the medium”. Clement Greenbergs early critism employs this kind of rhetoric. It too can be very helpful and enlightening. But It too, if relied upon too heavily, can wind up excluding great art as when Greenberg dismissed Van Gogh’s painting, as opposed to his drawings as merely “ornamental”. Artistic genius wants untrammeled freedom and the greatest works often defy previous notions of medium or genre. Anything goes if the work comes alive.

Also, however unified, the great artwork is never fully graspable. If the effect of a painting is analogous to eye contact with another animate presence, then it also has that elusive, indeterminate quality which we find in others. And even more important than instantaneous unity is duration, a sustained glance, to locate and relish the paintings treasures, especially its tantalizing elusiveness and pulsating life. We vibrate with it, ride with it, letting it lead and give, astound and amaze. Unless we are touched by the mystery, we remain in the land of the dead.

Another essential rhetoric is that of psychology. Concepts like the unconscious, automatism, sublimation, regression, repression, narcissism, identity, persona, and many others are often very helpful in communicating about the artist and the work. However out-of-date clinically, the depth psychologies of Freud, Jung and others offer a rich vocabulary and useful conceptual models with which to discuss art. Great art is always a sublimation of deep emotions and intense feelings, and the more of these the better.

Gestalt psychology of perception is often helpful too, like the writings of Rudolph Arnheim. He reminds us that the visual has its own distinct logic. But psychologists tend to psychologize art, and like the formalists and art historians, reduce it to words, explain it. In the late 60’s, I invited Arnheim to give a lecture at Wellesley College where I was teaching. During his talk he showed a slide of a Kenneth Noland chevron painting having only 3 chevrons, two purple and one black. His point was that something so simple was not visually complex enough to be artistic. I knew the picture well. It is “Transflux”, from 1963, 12′ long, 8′ high and magnificent. After his talk, I asked the following question “would he allow that a work could be visually simple but artistically alive?” He was clearly baffled, and my subsequent efforts to explain my question failed. But later, some of my colleagues and students told me that they understood my question perfectly well. For Arnheim though, there was nothing in the art experience that he could not explain.

Jack Kerouac wrote: “Your art is the Holy Ghost blowing through your soul”. This is the rhetoric of the spirit. It is about what draws us, not what drives us; it is about subjectivity and freedom. It keeps the formal, historical, and psychological ways of thinking from becoming too reductive, as is their wont. The perspective of the spirit wants art to be all it can be: a revelation, a new reality, something profound and exalted.

In her book, “Stroke of Insight”, Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist, relates how a stroke which impaired her left lobe function, eventually inabled her to access mystical experience at will. Researchers Andre Newberg and Eugenê D’Aquili have shown that the capacity for spiritual and mystical experiences is hardwired in our brains. Here are some of their findings. The left parietal lobe of the brain is “the orientation association area, which distinguishes between the physical self and the rest of the world. It confers a sense of space, time and reality. But it requires a constant stream of neural information flowing from all of the senses”. At certain moments, this flow can be dramatically reduced, for example when we expectantly concentrate on something edifying as in prayer or meditation (or, I would say, when we look intently at a great painting). “We experience a sense of timelessness and of a more vivid reality than our baseline sense of reality; there is a melting limitlessness. This capacity is a genetically arranged network in the brain.” It is either a by-product of some more general capacity for survival or is itself a stand-alone mechanism evolved for survival. It doesn’t matter which. As Baudelaire wrote, “Even if God does not exist, religion would still be holy and divine”. Ecstatic experience is a phenomenological fact, biologically observable, and scientifically real.

Also, among evolutionary biologists, cognitive neuroscientists, and developmental psychologists, there is a growing consensus that we are born dualists, bound to perceive the world as mind and body, spirit and matter, mental and physical, subjective and objective. Thousands of out of body experiences have been recorded by researchers. We easily imagine spirits without bodies (ghosts) and bodies without spirits (zombies). It turns out that dealing with inanimate objects and dealing with other selves are distinctly different processes, which engage different parts of the brain. “Fragil-X” is a developmental syndrome, a symptom of which is aversion to eye contact, even as the child can deal very well with inanimate objects. These and other indicators point to a biological bases for dualism; it seems to be already in place in toddlers and the primal distinction, which an infant makes between the presence of the mother and her absence, is very likely its basis. And if dualism is indeed our genetic inheritance, it helps explain why the dualistic rhetoric of the spirit is so uniquely useful when dealing with art.

Traditional Chinese society was shaped by Confucian philosophy but when it came to art, the Chinese turned to Taoism, and later Chan Buddhism, for their rhetoric. Based on the art of calligraphy, theirs is the world’s oldest, lyrical aesthetic going back 1600 years. Its desideratum is “chi”, the spirit, the living energy of the calligrapher present in his unique script. Here is another support for my thesis that the dualistic rhetoric of the spirit is indispensable for fully realizing all that art can be. Jacques Barzun expressed it this way: “Art proves the inadequacy of all materialistic explanations: in art the force and quality of the effect are out of proportion to the cause. If the arrangement of material particles accounted for spiritual results, colors and lines and words and sounds would invariably have the effect to which we are shaken to the core by an artistic experience. Nor is it any collection of lines or sounds that moves us, but certain ones only”. In other words ‘chi’ is a unique, emergent quality not reducible to its elements.

This notion of art was first expounded in the West in the 18th century. And as with the Chinese, it went together with the notion of divine inspiration. To quote Barzun again. “The genius of creation and the creations of genius had to be recognized before Art with a capital A could arise”.

Early on in the development of our species, there emerged the spiritual specialist. This was the shaman, whose appearance seems to predate both political leadership and the division of labor. Even today, we find the shaman in small hunter-gatherer groups. The shaman is in touch with the spirit world on behalf of the group. Male or female, the shaman is a visionary, a prophet, a sorcerer, a healer, a storyteller, a producer and director of rituals and rites. The shaman can tap into the creative imagination and the unconscious just like today’s artists. Often eccentric, hypersensitive, deformed, or sickly, the shaman usually keeps somewhat apart from the clan and is able to identify with spirits, by means of masks, trance, dance, rituals, intoxicants, hallucinogens, etc. The shaman is a highly individualized and spontaneous type like the contemporary artists, and unlike the priests of organized religion. The latter emerged only with village and then urban life based on agriculture, and the need to control ever larger populations. At this point, the political, aesthetic, and religious are all woven into one system. Another result of this rationalizing process is that the artist becomes a hand worker, a craftsman and, with the development of written language, is consigned to a lower position on the social scale. It is only in Hellenstic times and then, more completely, in the Italian Renaissance, that the artist is again seen as freely creative and honored as special. Note too, that it is only with the urban rationalization of life that ethics and politics became linked with religion. In hunter-gather societies, behavior is usually regulated by kinship relations and custom rather than religion. The creative synergy or symbiosis or identity, between art and religion, is far older, and far more basic, than the relation of ethics and religion. (Recent excavations in southern Turkey suggest that art and organized religion led to agriculture and larger settlements, at least in some cases.)

Accounts of art’s spiritual side usually run something like this: homo sapiens developed the imagination and self awareness to see the big picture. This gave humankind an enormous competitive advantage in the struggle for survival. But these same qualities – creative imagination and self-awareness – also made man vividly aware of his own death, a catastrophic prospect for an individual programmed solely for survival. So man is expelled from Eden for eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. He is isolated and alienated, yearning and incomplete. Art and religion are man’s means to transcendence, “terror management” as one writer put it. Yet, phenomenologically, art isn’t a consolation but an affirmation, an empowerment, and an exaltation.

A variant of the above allegory also sees art playing an indispensable role in modern society. Matisse said he wanted his art to be “a good armchair for every mental worker”. This quote has been cited again and again, even though it is very misleading. It makes art seem like a passive, comfortable distraction, mere entertainment. Still, Matisse was on to something. Art can renew our mind. Our complex modern life scatters us in all directions, art brings us home. As Emerson wrote, “That is always best which gives us to ourselves”. Art puts us in touch with our feelings and emotions, our inner self.

As Freud saw it, urbanization, rationalism, and civilization all require ever more self-control, repression, and dulling of deep wishes and intense feelings. Art provides a release, a catharsis, a triumphant mastery of forbidden drives.

I want to underline here that what I am calling the “rhetoric of the spirit” requires no metaphysical assumptions.

Of course, as with other rhetorics or ways of talking about art, the rhetoric of the spirit has its limitations, dangers, and abuses. There are the ever present risks of sounding like a windbag or of taking one’s self too seriously. (Some, perhaps many, would point to me in this regard). More importantly, over emphasis on the spiritual can also put in second place the physical, the sensual, and the visceral, all of which are also of the essence.

Finally, art can be seen as part of an ongoing, humanistic affirmation of the free individual as opposed to all of the totalistic and deterministic thought systems of the modern world: science, utilitarianism, rationalism, fundamentalist religion, tribalism, ethnic and gender identities, nationalism, capitalism, communism, game theory, et al. However apt or indispensable one or another of these paradigms may be in different contexts, they all ultimately reduce the individual to zero. For its part, a higher humanism celebrates the triumph of the singular, creative genius, self reliant, self revealing, irreducible, and free.

Endnote 1: Of course I am aware that much of what goes by the name of art today isn’t the purely lyrical art that I am pointing to in this essay. Embodied presence is the uniquely aesthetic quality of art. Today the notion of art is often used as a platform for the merely interesting, or merely provocative, or even merely ingenious.

Endnote 2: Of course the obtuse and the cynical will say that my view of aesthetics succumbs to “the pathetic fallacy” and “magical thinking” i.e., that it projects agency onto material objects. But in this, they will be exactly wrong. Exemplary art objects aren’t just material objects but what emerges from the material object: palpable human intention, assertion, and, at its greatest, a celebration of the self. The sense of “presence” we get from paintings and sculptures are facts of firsthand experience. The work “comes alive” or it doesn’t.

Endnote 3: True presence is constant. It always gives back. Common enough today though, is what Walter Darby Bannard once called, “high impact, low yield art”, art which comes on strong at first but doesn’t hold up to sustained or repeated looking. The paintings of Roy Lichtenstein are a perfect instance. One can take over a room at first blush, but then it starts to become rigid, static and simplistic. Like so many others, Lichtenstein’s is an art of diminishing returns.