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How Art is Seen

No matter how strongly the creator feels about his art, the making of it is only half the transaction. A piece of art is only completed when it registers in someone else’s experience. An artist may be determined just to please himself, but if he wants anyone else to share his taste it is worth thinking about the scenario that takes place when an art consumer sees the work for the first time.
There are three consecutive acts to the apprehending of a work of art. They are: the Impact, the Narrative, and the Afterburn.
The Impact is what stops you as you proceed through the gallery, or as you glance through a collection of thumbnails. It doesn’t have to slam you in the gut, but it does have to speak to you on a level of simple beguilement. It’s not about a conscious message, or skilled execution, or beauty or non-beauty. Even color as such is not a part of the first glance, usually. It really has to be about geometry. The first message is purely mathematical… the relationship of one form to another, a line to an edge. Every painting or sculpture or photograph is at its core a work of abstraction. The composition has to work, or the experience just doesn’t even begin. Sheer scale will command a kind of attention, but it will fade almost instantly if the geometry is nothing. A very young child might appreciate the abstract Impact of a work in the same way that he appreciates the forms of his toys. If the numbers are not working in some sort of harmony, not only will the piece be a failure… it won’t even be noticed.
Once the Impact (or you could just call it the composition, but I like “Impact” because you really can detect it from some distance, and at a glance) has drawn you in, you may begin to digest the Narrative. Any work that proceeds out of a classical tradition to any extent may have an actual narrative… a nativity or a judgement of Paris or a portrait or some other real story. But the Narrative may be something else. It could be a virtuoso performance in the craft of its execution. It could be a furthering of the composition itself, as in constructivism. It could be a simple act of seeing, or some kind of vision represented. It could be “beauty”. It could be a burlesque of the very idea of art, or an attempt at a subversion of the presentation of art in its usual settings, for comic or revolutionary effect. It is what you see when you stand before the work for a time, and pay some attention to it. There may be a story in it, or you may make up your own story of what it’s all about. You might, in this act, decide that the work is “good” or “bad”. You might make such a judgement based in part on the context of the image… things outside the work itself. Like, whether it is in a great museum, or on the walls of a coffee house. And, if you are in any way a normal human art consumer, the name and reputation of the artist and what prices his work commands will affect your interpretation. As well as various art-historical considerations of the cultural placing of the work, if you are equipped with that particular sophistication.
The third act is mysterious and difficult. It is what you are left with after parting from the work. The Afterburn. You may forget the work absolutely in a very short time, in which case it might be said that the work has a very weak Afterburn indeed. Except, you would not be in a position to say that, having forgotten it entirely. That, surely, is the fate of most art. But, you may remember a piece of art for the rest of your life. It might even change your life. Or, if in the course of exploring the Narrative act, you had concluded that the work was in fact “bad”, you might be surprised to discover that you can’t forget it. You may, in some strange way, continue to review and explore the work in your mind for a very long time.
You may see that the Afterburn is the most significant act. Only in the Afterburn is there a chance of the artist’s taste becoming your own. And there is very little reason to do art other than for the artist to compel other people to adopt his taste as their own. I’m speaking here of the artist’s motivations… there may be, in a lot of art, all sorts of cultural, political, or religious messages imposed by a patron or a social structure, discernible in the Narrative act and meant to be the important message that the work of art propends. A lot of art, even (or maybe most especially) primitive art, has to toe some sort of line even to be seen. And, in many a cultural moment, prevailing taste is strong for one reason or another, and not easily set aside or modified. But assuming it is even possible for an artist to be independent, his job is to be a sort of cultural engineer. First one viewer, then another, and another yet, until a river of humans have decided that this art has some peculiar power that can’t be denied nor forgotten. All these multiple instances of individual taste running the same way are what we call “fashion”, and it is a large part of the definition of a culture. And that is what an artist is supposed to do… to modify culture.
Impact is very quantifiable, if not particularly easy to master. Narrative is so full of possibilities, so many choices, that a determined and minimally gifted artist could certainly devise some strategy or enchantment for holding an art consumer’s attention for some small moments. A thoughtful artist probably will not even have much of a problem putting some “meaning” in there. But there is no way to explain or to teach the igniting of an Afterburn. The ones that manage to do it well in a particular age are remembered as much or more than their contemporary presidents and generals and lords.

2 Comments

  1. Do you have images for sale that would be appropriate for an office space in Austin? If so, can you send me some images please?

    1. I am sorry, but I have to inventory for the estate before I can sell anything. I will be in touch. If there is a specific one inwhich you are interested, please let me know.

      Belinda

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