In The Power of Art Simon Schama says, “Great art has dreadful manners. The hushed reverence of the gallery can fool you into believing masterpieces are polite things, visions that soothe, charm and beguile, but actually they are thugs. Merciless and wily, the greatest paintinngs grab you in a headlock, rough up your composure and then proceed in short order to rearrange your sense of reality.” Rearrange your sense of reality? Really?! When was the last time you looked at a painting long enough to experience that? …a new sense of the way things are.
When you’re taking art seriously you’re trying to see what’s there. What’s there is unlikely to register at first glance. If Schama is right, when it does register and you see something you’ve never seen before, it could unsettle your sense of the ordinary. (In fact, it should.) Suppose you walk into a visual enigma and can’t dispose of it immediately. What do you do? Most people, suggests Robert Irwin, don’t stop and invest time in it because they’ve got better things to do and seeing isn’t doing. But it is. And it takes imagination. Seeing doesn’t just happen. Seeing is a creative act, an imaginative one if you will. If not, it amounts to little more than browsing for a gewgaw.
The way I”m using “imagination” is not as you find it in common parlance. “Imagination” is as abused in popular culture as “love” is by Hallmark. I don’t think of it as something fanciful and unreal to be regarded no more seriously than a daydream or an hallucination. Rather, imagination is the capacity we have for double-mindedness. …Huh?! What that means is, it is our capacity to see two things at once–two things that may seem to be as opposite as the two sides of a coin but are not opposite at all. Think of the lyrics of that Sinatra song from the American songbook, “Imagination is funny, it makes a cloudy day sunny…makes the bee think of honey….” There you have it…are cloudy days sunny? Well, no and yes, paradoxically. (If the sun weren’t out it would be night time!) Do bees think of honey or do they make it? For the bee there is no distinction, thinking is doing.
To see art properly is to see it with double-mindedness, to see the object for what it is–its form, color, subject matter, composition, execution, the mood it evokes or the ideas it stirs etc. But this is only half the story so to speak. The other half of what it is is its content, that ineffable presence that cannot be reduced to words. It can be grasped but not held because content, when it’s there, is as dynamic as a bee thinking of honey. Like works of love, it will not hold still. Here’s how Clement Greenberg put it: “The content of the Divine Comedy can’t be put into words, nor can the content of any Shakespearean play, or that of a Schubert song….” Imagination, then, allows you to experience in ways uncommon to routine and alien to mere reverie.
It is important to emphasize (because I am not using imagination in its colloquial sense) that seeing with double-mindedness does not mean that you can do just anything with a work of art. It doesn’t mean letting your mind wander where it will, into unleashed fancy and free association. Such fanciful wandering carries you away from the object itself. When you hear someone say, “That reminds me of…” or “That looks like…,” imagination is not in play, memory is. Both of those expressions reveal that there is nothing new beyond the association made with prior experience. Remembering is not imagination. And those associations–if they have not already done so–are not going to “rearrange your sense of reality.” They will not expand your awareness or awaken in you anything you do not already know. They are not imaginative; they are mundane. They do not take the object of art seriously. (Granted, if the art itself is not serious there is little for the imagination to do.)
Cue Sinatra (actually, Johnny Burke who was the lyricist, 1940):
“Imagination is crazy, your whole perspective gets hazy
Starts you asking a daisy “What to do, what to do?”