Perhaps I was tired (or lazy), but to my thoroughly American eyes, the small, shadowy painting held little appeal.
Called Affair de Nuit and painted by Haitian artist Guidel Presume, it depicts a threatening figure brandishing a whip as he hurries a man shrouded in white along a curving road.
The work is part of an exhibition, on display through March 31 at Baltimore's Paper-Rock-Scissors gallery, that was organized by Madison Smartt Bell, author of two novels set in Haiti, All Souls' Rising, and Master of the Crossroads.
There are scenes of domestic life, markets, funerals and dances. Some paintings, such as a picture of a sun-drenched cotton field, have instant aesthetic appeal. Others, which dealt with weightier subjects such as slavery or death, are haunting.
But Affair de Nuit, with its forbidding landscape and (to me) alien subject matter, didn't capture my attention. I allowed my eyes to wander. Then Bell spoke to me about his experiences in Haiti, the people he met and the culture in which he immersed himself.
I looked at the painting again. Where previously I had seen a strange landscape dotted with figures with which I couldn't connect, I now saw a cautionary narrative steeped in long-held religious beliefs. According to Vaudou (or voodoo), the figure shrouded in white is a zombie, or a corpse that has been brought back to life by a Vaudou sorcerer. The zombie then becomes the slave of the sorcerer, or can be sold to someone else.
Bell's stories changed how I saw the painting -- and made me wonder about how we experience art. Do we need to know about the background of an artwork -- the culture from which it originates, the biography of the artist -- to appreciate it? Shouldn't we be able to look at a painting, read a novel or listen to a concerto and simply enjoy the experience based on the merits of the work?
The answer -- maybe yes and maybe no -- is the stuff of endless scholarly debate. "The answer is that it is absolutely critical: you do need to know as much as you can about who created the work and when and for whom," said art historian William L. Pressly.
Then he added: "Of course, every great work of art can grab you at some level."
Filling in the blanks
Pressly, a specialist in 18th century British art who teaches at the University of Maryland, College Park, tells of encountering as a young man an Edouard Manet painting in which the artist depicts a yellow house. "It was just overpowering. It was quite moving. The way that the house was cropped and the darkness of the windows made it seem claustrophobic," he said.
Later, Pressly learned that Manet was dying when he created the work. "That knowledge added to the experience, but I had the immediate response: It was a bright yellow house and all was not well. I knew this when I saw it, but later more knowledge added to the experience."
For art historian Ellen Handler Spitz, learning about a work of art can be like putting on spectacles. "Knowledge is like opera glasses: You can enjoy the opera without them, but put them on and all of a sudden you can see all the facial expressions and all the details of the costumes."
On the other hand, she added, "In some ways, it is the responsibility of the artist to grab you and draw you in, and give you enough stuff to make you stay and experience his work.
"Knowing a lot about the work or the background of the work isn't going to substitute for that."
Spitz teaches a class titled "Questioning the Arts," in the Honors College at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. And earlier this month, class members -- ranging from freshmen to seniors majoring in subjects from dance to physics -- conducted an experiment of sorts.
Spitz began by asking if any of the students were Japanese, or had studied Japanese culture or visited that country. None were and none had. Then she asked the class to read Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata's 1959 novel, Thousand Cranes. Set in Japan, the book tells the story of a young man who, after his mother's death, becomes entangled in the lives of his late father's two mistresses.
'You always go back for more'
Spitz then invited Mara Miller, an expert in Japanese aesthetics, to speak to the class.
Miller, who teaches at Temple University and at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., began with a lesson in Japanese pronunciation. Then she explained the significance of a Japanese tea ceremony, and passed around a delicate bamboo whisk, used to stir tea leaves. And she demonstrated with a dark and shimmering shinu bowl the correct way to grasp the vessels in which tea is served.
"Works of art are not like eating food: You finish the meal then just walk away," she said. "Works of art are like lovers, like making love: The more you make love, the more you know about your lover and you always go back for more. Otherwise, it's something else."