“True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are.”
I recently attended an event at which a celebrated public radio personality attempted to interview a celebrated artist. “Attempted,” because he clearly did not understand her work and the spirit from which it sprang. His attitude of not-getting-it wasn’t a storytelling device — the kind where an interviewer feigns amicable ignorance in order to include the audience in the finding out — but a petulant child’s fit. The fact that he is brilliant at his own work perhaps only confounded his frustration with not being able to understand her art, to connect with it. The event was painful to watch because the first task of a great interviewer is humility — sublimating his ego in the service of letting his subject shine; the second and more arduous task is understanding, which takes a deliberate investment of time, intention, and effort. It was painful to watch, but also shrouded in soft pity — endearing, because he was merely seeking to connect with her work and needed a sherpa in understanding it. His chief fault wasn’t so much doing it in public, without having first made those necessary investments, but in presuming that it was the artist’s duty to be that sherpa herself. (The artist, I should add, handled the situation with remarkable patience and poise.)
The task of the audience in witnessing such tragicomedy is not to judge but to seek to understand — not to add to the effrontery by flagellating the interviewer’s laziness of understanding with the audience’s own in turn, but to see what went awry and glean from that a larger insight about that delicate dance of giving and receiving, of mutual connection and comprehension, that is art.
That is why the incident reminded me of a beautiful essay by Jeanette Wintersontitled “Art Objects,” found in her magnificent 1996 collection Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (public library), in which she illuminates with exquisite precision the many layers of misunderstanding that happened here, which also happen so frequently when someone issues a dismissive or critical denunciation of art from a deep place of I just don’t get it.
Winterson begins by recounting her own awakening to art after years of feeling no interest in the visual arts. “My lack of interest was the result of the kind of ignorance I despair of in others,” she confesses with hindsight’s lucidity. As she finds herself in Amsterdam, she also finds herself a stranger in a strange land in another way. Suddenly beholding that dormant power of art, she writes:
I had fallen in love and I had no language. I was dog-dumb. The usual response of “This painting has nothing to say to me” had become “I have nothing to say to this painting.” And I desperately wanted to speak. Long looking at paintings is equivalent to being dropped into a foreign city, where gradually, out of desire and despair, a few key words, then a little syntax make a clearing in the silence. Art, all art, not just painting, is a foreign city, and we deceive ourselves when we think it familiar. No-one is surprised to find that a foreign city follows its own customs and speaks its own language. Only a boor would ignore both and blame his defaulting on the place. Every day this happens to the artist and the art.We have to recognize that the language of art, all art, is not our mother-tongue.
Winterson begins longing for a guide, “someone astute and erudite,” “a person dead or alive” with whom to “think things over,” and is gripped with the way in which understanding art doesn’t obey any of our familiar problem-solving methods. (Art, after all, is not a problem to be solved but an experience to be allowed.) She writes:
Art is odd, and the common method of trying to fit it into the scheme of things, either by taming it or baiting it, cannot succeed. Who at the zoo has any sense of the lion?
With that, Winterson considers the heart of that active surrender that art requires of us:
I do not believe that art (all art) and beauty are ever separate, nor do I believe that either art or beauty are optional in a sane society. That puts me on the side of what Harold Bloom calls “the ecstasy of the privileged moment.” Art, all art, as insight, as rapture, as transformation, as joy. Unlike Harold Bloom, I really believe that human beings can be taught to love what they do not love already and that the privileged moment exists for all of us, if we let it. Letting art is the paradox of active surrender. I have to work for art if I want art to work on me.
She finds her sherpa in the celebrated art critic Roger Fry and his “life-delighting, art-delighting approach, unashamed of emotion, unashamed of beauty” — a mind so singular that he became the subject of Virginia Woolf’s only biography. Fry, Winterson felt, allowed her to approach a work of art “without unfelt reverence or unfit complacency.”
Slowly, subtly, as she educated herself in the language of art, Winterson began to feel her way of seeing evolve. She echoes Tolstoy’s notion that art thrives on “emotional infectiousness” and writes:
What has changed is my capacity of feeling. Art opens the heart.
But art, Winterson observes, also takes time (that unfortunate interview increasingly gave the sense that time was the missing ingredient of understanding) and commitment. Among the essential obstacles that must be overcome before we can begin to appreciate art, she argues, is the experience of increasing discomfort. Noting that “ordinary life passes in a near blur” — which cognitive science has demonstrated convincingly — she asks:
When was the last time you looked at anything, solely, and concentratedly, and for its own sake? … We find we are not very good at looking.