Getting Art

Perception, Appreciation, Meaning, and Value

"An important criterion for good art is artistic intent. This implies that good art cannot be an accident."


I remember the first time I “got” an abstract painting. I was at a Joan Miró exhibition, wandering past the images and thinking that they were interesting. But that was the extent of my response. I wasn’t moved. And then, as I stood staring at one particular work, it hit me: “this painting makes me want to laugh!” Miró’s work is rather abstract – generally considered to be Surrealist, even though Miró himself hated to be categorized that way – and there was nothing directly funny about the image itself. But somehow, and I think it was at the point at which I gave up consciously trying to understand what I was seeing, I had broken through the intellectual barrier and sensed the soul of the work. At least I hope that’s what happened. At that moment I perceived the artist as a man with a profound sense of humor; a wizard of wit who was capable of being droll through the medium of the abstract image. I was, at last, moved. Another viewer might not have been moved in precisely the same way, but that is to be expected. Each person’s perception will be colored by individual experience and state of mind. What was important was that my own breakthrough in perception was something of a personal, multifaceted artistic epiphany.

It had taken a while, but I had acquired a new skill, and from that moment art was visible in a fresh and revealing light. But it is easy to forget how to use that special sense and to fall back on physical vision and the brick-wall intellect that is immediately behind it. It takes work and persistence to see beyond the surface of good art (definition of bad art: there is nothing beyond the surface to see), and by extension to distinguish more than the superficial appearance of life in general. But it is a skill worth learning for reasons that go far beyond mere art appreciation, and I believe that it is one of art’s noblest purposes to teach that skill.

How do we go about acquiring this mysterious faculty of “seeing” and keeping it ready for action? Keep looking. Spend time absorbing art and trying to connect with the core of it, beyond its physical attributes. The physical act of looking should lead to a further level of perception, but the intellectual machine must be turned down a bit for that to happen. Once the cognitive clutter is out of the way the subconscious works very quickly. In fact I believe that the subconscious response is formed almost immediately, even before the logical conclusion, and that by subduing analytical activity we are simply clearing the smoke out of the way so we can perceive our own response at a deeper level. Of course analysis has its place. It can contribute to the enjoyment and understanding of a work of art as long as it isn’t allowed to obscure the inner meaning. Once an emotional connection has been made, analysis allows us to discover points of interest and relationships that may have contributed to making the image work. That exercise can help us to understand the connection between our logical and subliminal perception.

Art is often “taught” the other way around: elements, composition, and historical significance will be examined with little or no attention paid to the human response. But there’s really no other way to go about it because, in addition to the fact that we don’t always know exactly what the artist intended to convey in the first place, and even if we did it would normally be impossible to encapsulate that intent in verbal or written form, individual responses will vary widely. The human response simply cannot be taught, but its understanding can and should be encouraged. Emotion preceding intellect is a natural progression, and the thrill of that light bulb flashing on is powerful motivation to learn more. See it, feel it, then analyze it. Of course the study of art from a historical perspective can be undertaken without any particular feeling for the work, but in that case it is an academic pursuit as opposed to understanding and connecting with the artwork on a basic “gut” level in the way that, I believe, the artist intended.

So what is and what isn’t art? A realistic image of a person, thing, place, or event can have a powerful effect because of the content alone, but that is simply a reproduction of the subject and not the type of art we’re talking about here. I chose to describe my response to an abstract painting in the opening paragraph as an example for that reason – to eliminate the confusing element of identifiable content. That doesn’t necessarily mean that art with clearly recognizable content cannot communicate on an artistic level. It most certainly can. In general an important criterion for good art, and one that leads to the all-important quality of having something to see beyond the surface, is artistic intent. This implies that good art cannot be an accident. The artist sets out to depict or communicate an emotion or idea to a broad audience, whereas the snapshooter, for example, sets out to photograph people or places for their personal memento value. Both pursuits are valid, but one is art and the other is not.

We are both liberated and limited by our senses. They are our connection with our environment, and are essential for growth and survival, which are inseparable from our pleasure and satisfaction. We are attuned to sensory cues that elicit emotional responses that in turn prepare us and motivate us to deal with situations in an appropriate way. The variations and gradations are so numerous as to be essentially infinite, and comprise a language of their own. This is the language of life and art. Art that is well done speaks to us through those same senses on a very basic, universal level that transcends verbal and written language. It may not be the ideal means of communication to employ when instructing someone how to cook an omelet, but that’s not what it is for. It can be a tool for communication that conveys ideas with a force that language cannot equal. The word “red” is not nearly as direct and as powerful as our experience of seeing the color red. A discussion of musical harmony doesn’t even come close to eliciting the tingling emotional response we get from actually hearing the harmony. And of course without the existence of the color or sound there would be no discussion about either. Art is seminal. Art is primal. And it is in no way reduced in value by societal advancement or technological progress. In addition to helping us fine-tune our senses and learn a little more about ourselves in the process, art can sooth, elevate, stimulate, invigorate, and motivate with greater immediacy and more universal appeal than any other form of communication.

The value of communication that works on a global scale, to society and to the future, is self-evident. If there is any real hope for humankind, it might be expressed and realized as effectively through artistic endeavor as through scientific achievement. If art and technology can be made to march in step, our chances may be even better.