Experience works of art, free of scrims of verbiage

The Argument

October 21, 2001|By Ellen Handler Spitz | Ellen Handler Spitz,Special to the Sun

Seeing art is at its best a private and mysterious affair -- read about it later.

Why should we bother to read anything about art? Why not simply experience it for ourselves? Why not rely on our own clear eyes to discover its pleasures? Why depend on someone else to extract its meanings for us?

But we do. We wrap up works of art in wads of wordy gauze, stick them with labels, gird them with explanatory texts, smother them in narrative, subordinate them to academic disquisitions, brochures, artists' statements, catalogue essays and critical tomes. We will not permit our art to appear naked in public.

Why? Are we afraid that it might attract the reaction the Emperor did in Hans Christian Andersen's knowing tale? Are we afraid that -- without the critical, sometimes strident, voices that tell us how and where and when to look and what to see -- we ourselves might be revealed in all our ignorance?

When art is seen through scrims of verbiage, its viewers collude. Yet true art remains, as ever, a deeply private affair. It springs into being during trysts and secret rendezvous, when particular works meet unsuspecting viewers, and they begin to whisper to one other, conspiratorially or in compelling dissonances. I argue that reading about works of art in advance of experiencing them can serve to curtail their effect just as surely as it may occasionally enhance it.

When it comes to art, many viewers tend to find exactly what they (are told to) look for. Even granting Ernst Gombrich the eminent British art historian, his obvious point that there is no such thing as an "innocent eye" (we all come with baggage), I want to rescue notions of openness and receptivity and to celebrate the undervalued virtues of naivete. Plato wrote in Book X of his Republic that the duller eye may often see a thing sooner than the keener.

In his new book, Reading Pictures (Random House, 337 pages, $29.95), Alberto Manguel affectingly describes his first encounter with an image he realized was created out of materials by human hands. He was about 10.

Unlike the pictures in his story books that were made expressly to illustrate characters or scenes of action, made to accompany, in other words, a written text, the image that arrested his attention -- Van Gogh's fishing boats on the beach at Saintes-Maries -- appeared before him simply as an image. It dared him to make of it what he would. He stared for hours at its hulls and masts, at its water and sand, at its mesmerizing red and copper and blue. He never forgot it. Words came later, after the shapes and colors and lines and salty air were firmly fixed.

For me, the first images were printed on richly colored pages in heavy oversized art books that crowded the bottom shelves of my parents' mahogany bookcases. Sitting cross-legged on the carpet, I spread them open, gazing horror-struck at 14th and 15th century crucifixions.

Knowing nothing of Christianity, I found them ghastly and uncanny; they filled me with anguish. Even today, I can draw their details -- writhing red curlicues of blood, twisted fingers and ashen feet impaled by nails, a tilted head, the unintelligible letters INRI. Nothing I ever studied later, in all my many years of art history, has altered their impact.

John Berger's benchmark essay from the early seventies, Ways of Seeing (Penguin Books, 166 pages, $12.95), reminds us that looking comes first: "Seeing comes before words," he says. "The child looks and recognizes before it can speak." Berger's book, in fact, despite its heavy-handed effort to persuade readers to see art with Marxist / feminist eyes, attempts to adhere to its own dictum by including three wordless chapters.

What fascinates me about these image-only sections is that despite the ideological pronouncements that precede and follow them, some of the paintings, drawings, photos and prints on these pages escape control. Liberated from an attached text, they emerge, despite their carefully orchestrated visual display, to evoke or to become whatever we choose to make of them.

In one wordless chapter devoted to voyeurism and the exploitation of naked female bodies, Rembrandt's Bathsheba is posed opposite a pornographic photograph and other nudes. Contemplative, elegant, and quintessentially sensual, she refuses to be reduced to an example of anything. We need no words of introduction to her. Not even the Bible. Art wrestles endlessly with the incommensurability of what we see and what we know.

Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino (Harcourt Brace, 130 pages, $12), wondrously imaginative and clever, gives unforgettable paradigms of the impossibilities of representation. Where, Calvino asks in half-serious confusion, does one wave end and the next one begin? How can an exceedingly nearsighted person, planted outdoors on a clear night with a flashlight and eyeglasses, match the star chart in his hands to the twinkling firmament above so as to accurately locate and identify the constellations?

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