Why not read descriptions of visual arts

First principle for appreciating art: do not read (or listen) to anything when looking at works of visual art. Just look! Whenever you come across paintings or sculptures, let the art alone speak to you. Or not.

Even when visiting a museum or gallery, when looking at the art first-hand rather than through secondary images (websites, catalogs, etc.), do not read the sign with the artist’s name and the title of the work…until, perhaps, later.

Why? Art is a two-way interaction. Every (good) artist aesthetically re-presents reality and human conditions/concerns based on personal values, ideas, emotions, observances and experiences. Each art viewer also brings their personal values-ideas-emotions-observances-experiences to involvement/interaction with the views of the artist expressed through a physical presentation that is art.

The same mutual creative-receptive interaction is also true for other art forms, but written descriptions, explanations and artist statements usually accompany visual art exhibitions, so caution is advised.

Great art expresses universals applicable to life and the living. An artist’s personal artistic experience and/or their motivational process in creating art can be interesting to discover later, after the initial artistic experience has passed, but by looking at art in reality or secondary modes as stated above, the artistic experience is the art-experience only when this occurs, not consulted with written materials explaining the artist’s artistry or intent.

A recent experience by this writer may suffice as an example: I was browsing a website containing more than two dozen paintings and sculptures that had recently won a reputable juried competition thinking that my New York-based nonprofit art foundation – American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) — may give an additional cash prize to a chosen artist, as many other arts organizations do.

ART’s criteria for upholding all art is excellence in aesthetic beauty and life-enriching content – that is, beauty of form and positive values ​​(content) expressed in art. (Each awards organization has its own criteria for judging art, but these are ours.)

I came across a finely executed painting of a young girl (probably a teenager) looking thoughtfully at an object in her hand; the object was not visible. Her long blonde hair was delightfully detailed, her facial expression intelligent and thoughtful, her graceful body, her neat and attractive clothes – in short, here is an image of a charming young woman in a pleasant reverie, looking at a precious and technically rendered object by the hand of a sensitive artist.

Good, I thought, “It meets ART’s high standards of fusing both form and content, bringing not only pleasure to the eye but also meaning at the time of viewing and cause for contemplation.”

I then noticed the title: “ENCORE”. My reaction narrowed: What exactly is she looking at that would express the word “AGAIN”?

I happily searched my own memory bank to imagine what image could give him such pleasure. A photo of a deceased grandmother still alive in her heart? A forever cherished poem? What about his past – “Still” – causes that expression of sweet rapport on his face?

My mental activity is what I brought to the experience of his experience – the valuable interaction between art and viewer.

Then I read the attached explanation of the impulse – the meaning – behind the painting written by the artist, the young woman’s mother. She painted this picture of her daughter because the daughter was about to leave for college, and she (the mother) would miss her (the mother) terribly while she was gone, also knowing that this first leaving home was the beginning of a more permanent departure to come when, the university finished, her daughter would leave for a life apart, separated from the intimate cocoon of the family.

She titled the painting “YET” because now, she explained, for the past few days her daughter has been “always” at home. She – the mother-artist – then revealed that the object the girl was looking at in her hand was … his cell phone.

So what picture was she looking at, I wondered now? A selfie? A game? A college course? An archaeological site? Did it matter? No! Because what she – the subject of the painting – lived had nothing to do with painting.

The experience of the mother-artist was what counted. Her maternal love was obviously valid, but it was her own feelings that concerned her, so the painting had no meaning on its own, except that of a young woman looking at something in her hand, in this case the banal object of a mobile phone.

The painting was beautiful and could have offered universal meaning – reverence, memories, hopes – but now I knew the art had only gained wider meaning because I as a viewer, I brought my own value system to it. Once I learned the artists which means it was all over for me.

Not only no prize for the artist, but a boring experience for me as a person. How egocentric an artist. What subjectivity his vision. What a waste of imagination and fun to imagine.

Moral of the story: when you look at art, be with art. Why the artist chose a subject, what it means to them, how they executed the work, all of this can be a fascinating thing to learn. But not during the artistic experience itself. And even then… it might be worth it, it might not be.

Precautionary statement: Watch. Appreciate aesthetics and merge with meaning (like you see and interact with). Or not.

Our deepest values ​​via powerful emotions and physiological dynamics are vigorously engaged when viewing art. Projection is also part of merging with art and this is precisely why visualizing our values ​​in physically manifest art forms can be a spiritual experience as well as an aesthetic one.

Art is not a game. Art speaks to our soul – the value center of our very identity – for better or for worse.

Look, feel, think, imagine, react and being with that’s what art is. Lily? Good. But be selective about what and when. And be ready to learn more than you want to know.

Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART), a New York-based nonprofit educational foundation (www.art-21.org). She has written for numerous publications, including “Reader’s Digest” and The New York Times. His latest book is “Adamas”. For more on Alexandra York, head here now.

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Briana R. Cross