Two terrific essays that I’ve come across recently, both wonderfully perceptive examples of arts criticism, have struck with me their astute insights about how we look at art, how we think about art, and how that can change how we see and think about the world.
I suspect these essays hit me hard because how we see and think about the world is changing rapidly and dramatically as everything pauses during the coronavirus pandemic, and as we witness the Band-Aids that have been just barely holding together the house of cards we call a society have been ripped off and it has all started to collapse. Being able to reorient our perspectives is suddenly a radical imperative, if we’re going to remake the world for the better in the wake of this. That is not something that is in any way guaranteed, so we need to push for it. But before we can push for it, we need to imagine other possibilities. And before we can do that, we need to reexamine how we look at the world.
Back in February (yes, this link has been sitting in an open browser tab for a while), Sebastian Smee at The Washington Post reviewed the exhibition “True to Nature: Open-Air Painting in Europe, 1780–1870,” which had just opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. (Its run was cut short by the pandemic shutdown, but you can see some of the canvases at the exhibition’s NGA site.) In a piece with the remarkable title of “You’ve probably never heard of these artists, but they painted reality in a way we’ve lost sight of,” Smee writes:
[The show is] about how a bunch of European painters started paying close attention to empirical reality (remember that?) and how, one by one, they figured out how to set aside convention and prejudice, and to paint what was before their eyes.
[F]or all its quietude, the show is radical. [snip] Why? Is it the authenticity? Does painting as fresh and firsthand as this provide the antidote we need to screens, social media and the capital’s all-around ambiance of lies and spin? Could be. But I think these small, luminous paintings are pressing us into an awareness of something deeper.
The fact is that we’re being pulled ever further from an awareness of our minds’ basis in, and dependence on, nature, and from the idea that there exists an empirical reality. That’s scary. You can point to the subjectivity and partiality of vision all you like. (We’re all limited in our perceptions. To be human is to struggle with bias). But when you’re so obsessed with exposing bias that you abandon the idea of an empirical reality altogether, you leave a vacuum.
Here’s the bit that also applies to movies (and all other forms of art):
In art, it’s always fascinating to see how strong the collective conventions that govern vision can be, and how seriously they can impede our ability to see clearly. When Europeans first came to America, for instance, or to Australia, they spent decades painting the distinctive new landscapes they encountered — landscapes that looked nothing like Europe — as if they were just another version of Europe.
Their visions were dictated by the conventions they brought with them. As examples of bias, of cognitive dissonance, the results are interesting. But they’re also absurd, stale, embarrassing — in the same way that seeing the world through the lens of your social media feed is absurd, stale, embarrassing.
Advice for making art (and perhaps for remaking the world):
Don’t accept received wisdom. Dispense with acquired habits. Find out for yourself. Look. Look with feeling. Look again.
It’s a cornerstone of journalism, scientific inquiry and poetry. It’s an instruction for how to be in the world. It has never been more important.
Smee wrote that in February. It’s even more important now.
And then there’s Will Gompertz at BBC News writing about the brand-new and mind-blowingly amazing high-res and deeply zoomable photo of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” that Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum posted online this week. (That zoomable photo is here. WARNING: You will get lost in it for hours.)
The photo is a whole new way of seeing this astonishing painting like no one has ever seen before with the naked eye. Not even Rembrandt himself. Curators and conservators will only have seen such detail previously with the help of microscopes. Certainly no museum visitor will ever have gotten this perspective on it.
And what is there to see? Well!
At no point does the image start to pixilate or distort, it’s pin-sharp throughout.
And it remains so as you continue to click, getting further and further into the painting until the Captain’s paint-cracked eyeball is the size of a fist, and you realise that tiny glint you first saw isn’t the result of one dab of Rembrandt’s brush, but four separate applications, each loaded with a slightly different shade of paint.
And then you stop and think: Crikey, Rembrandt actually used four different colours to paint a miniscule light effect in the eye of one of the many life-sized protagonists featured in this group portrait, which probably wouldn’t be seen by anybody anyway.
Or, maybe, this visionary 17th Century Dutchman foresaw a future where the early experiments with camera obscura techniques, in which he might have dabbled, would eventually lead to a photographic technology capable of recording a visual representation of his giant canvas to a level of detail beyond the eyesight of even the artist himself!
Here we’re seeing how Rembrandt saw the world! But also not! We’re seeing how he thought about the world — in much the same way as Smee saw how those landscape painters were seeing the world: as it is, but also the small, solid elements that combine to create a perception of the world… and how the tiniest detail can have an enormous impact on the big picture. Figuratively, but also literally:
The Night Watch is as close to theatre as a painting can get.
As the director of the Rijksmuseum said, it is a school photo taken before everybody is lined up in order (it shows Capt. Cocq instructing Lt. Ruytenburch to bring his men to attention).
It captures a moment of movement and mayhem.
You can see that when in front of the canvas. But what you are not, when you’re at home, you can now see the same sense of chaos in the way Rembrandt painted his masterpiece
What is making art if not bringing beauty and order to chaos? What is thinking about art if not striving to understand the chaos?
Time to starting seeing and thinking about the chaos in new ways…