LC's Take: The beholder's eye

Posted Tuesday, July 29, 2014 in Features

LC's Take: The beholder's eye

by LC Van Savage

Time Magazine and other periodicals of that strain have an Arts section where learned men and women expound on whatever art the magazine is featuring that week. These expounders are often experts in their field, thoroughly versed in Renaissance or Dada, Folk or Abstract, Impressionist, Ashcan or Cubist art forms, and they love nothing better than to “explain” what the paintings-of-the-week are all about, and more importantly, what the artist was “saying” or “telling us.”

Usually the artists themselves are long dead, so the research done by these truly brilliant people of great artistic scholarship is spurious at best, at least for me, and somewhat suspect.  I think like all humans, schooled in the arts or not, these art experts see what they see in paintings as filtered through their own passions, studies and prejudices. After all, if the artists aren’t here, how can they defend themselves or explain the meanings of their works?  Frankly I’d wager that a good many of them, were they able to speak from the Great Beyond, would not only waggle a finger, but would also vehemently disagree with and scold today’s interpreters of their paintings for completely missing the point.  If in fact there ever was one. I mean after all, maybe some great works of art are because that was the only way the artists knew how to paint and so it was that it was the only way he or she could make the painting come out in the end. Maybe those paintings just are.

Nonetheless, I suppose it’s important for great works of art to be talked about, explained and interpreted by these savants so we poor ign’rints can get the picture. (Sorry.)  But the problem for me is that I just never, ever understand their interpretations.  I read through the entire article sometimes three times and I stare at the picture of the painting the article’s author is discussing and I simply cannot connect the author’s words with the artist’s work.  The author will see all these hidden messages that are just never there for me.  He will explain in deep, loving detail the point the artist was trying to make.  He will be able to even talk about the artist’s educational background, church affiliation, about his fears and terrors, whether he hated his mother and what he ate for lunch the day he finally signed the painting.

 I look and look and all I can see in certain paintings is maybe a beautifully rendered landscape with perhaps a bunch of Dark Ages angels flying about, mostly with vacuous expressions and limp hands, all looking down at some people who seem to have lost all their clothing except for a few scraps of leftover fabric draped gracefully across their privates and who are staring back up at those angels with equally vacuous expressions and with equally limp hands reaching toward them in a half-hearted way. 

Let us suppose that three major magazines review the same great work of art. In one, the writer will liken this painting to a specific scene from the Bible; in another the author will insist it’s a scene of naked folks shuddering because they’re being forced to take tea with Dante that very afternoon and they share some concern as to how that tea will be warmed, and in the third, they’ll say that they’re expressing dismay at the invention of the helicopter. Who knows? I think that unless the painter wrote out the explanation of his opus on the back of the canvas, then we maybe should all say “perhaps this artist was trying to tell us….” Then we’d all feel comfortable about drawing our own conclusions and would not feel lessened because we, in our ignorance, don’t at all see what the art experts see.

I recall reading a long dissertation written by a man with a whole lot of art degrees. He was explaining to the Great Masses of Those Who Don’t Get It about a wonderful painting done by one of my personal favorites, Anna Mary Robertson, aka Grandma Moses.  Mrs. Moses had painted a scene she remembered from her childhood where horses were running about, frightened by an incoming summer storm.   The wind was obviously blowing hard. It’s a dramatic scene and this writer began to interpret that nice old lady’s “hidden meaning.” The horses of course were the ones ridden by those Apocalypse guys, the incoming storm was Grandma’s “telling” us about the end of the world and how we’d best atone for everything we’d ever done this very instant, and heaven only knows what that sinister barn represented.    

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