The poet W. S. Merwin says that “poetry begins with hearing.” What does he mean? I’m not at all sure, but he went on the say that you can’t write poetry if you don’t first listen to what surrounds you in the natural & human world. He seems to be saying that poetry enters our mind & heart through the ear, that its life is in the sound of words that echo meaning from within. When it comes to poetry there is an intimate relationship between sound and the sense we make of it.
If for W.S. Merwin poetry is an acoustical affair, then painting is an ocular one. Painting begins with seeing. You can’t paint if you don’t first look at the world that surrounds you. A painting lives, comes to life, (to use Emerson’s words) in the eye/the mind, in the images that flicker within. There is an intimate relationship between what we see and the sense we make of it on canvas.
So, when you come face to face with a painting you just don’t get, maybe you don’t get it because the artist didn’t either. Or maybe you don’t get it because you can’t see what’s there. In either case the problem has to do with seeing. If the artist can’t make sense of whatever it is s/he’s painting, what chance has the viewer of making sense of it either? And it matters little whether the painting is a landscape or a portrait, whether it’s abstract or representational.
Whether a painting works or not certainly depends on the skill of the artist, but it also depends on the skill of the viewer. Painting takes work. So why should we assume it doesn’t require some work on the part of the viewer? Does seeing just happen? No. Visual perception is not the passive recording of stimulus material. It is an active concern of the mind. Seeing requires the mind as well as the eye to work. In other words, it requires what can only be called “visual intelligence.”
You may have heard how the anthropologist, Franz Boas, sparked debate by proclaiming that the Inuit had perhaps as many as fifty different words in their language for “snow.” It’s a debate that continues to this day. “Fifty?” the debate usually goes, “Really? Can’t be. Snow is snow.” Well, it turns out the Boas story is not just an urban myth. Snow isn’t just snow. The Inuit see what we don’t. We haven’t words for what we can’t see. Saying also begins with seeing.
My friend Charles, the artist & art historian, has pointed out that “seeing” is not just the function of an unconscious eye responding to visual stimuli. Looking is no guarantee you’ll see what’s there, but it’s a place to begin. Seeing is a matter of how you pay attention. It doesn’t just happen. It takes work, learning, and practice. Charles has identified at least 23 modes of perception, each distinct but inter-related, each a function of one’s visual intelligence.
In the Walter Isaacson biography of Leonardo daVinci, he writes that Leonardo compared seeing any scene or object to looking at the page of a book. “It is meaningless when taken as a whole and instead needs to be looked at word by word. Deep observation must be done in steps” and with deliberate, conscious attention. Seeing doesn’t just happen. It requires the exercise of visual intelligence. It’s not a matter of how smart you are but how willing you are to pay attention, to attend to what’s there. Because the moment you’re presented with a visual enigma you have a choice to make: to pay attention or look away.
In visiting a museum or gallery, too often the looking that takes place is to find what we “like/don’t like” and to ignore the rest. Seeing has nothing to do with like & dislike. Seeing is something entirely different, something rooted in the very substance of our being and, biologically speaking, is “to keep us from getting hit by, say, this oncoming truck, right?” At its core it is also what makes art “art” rather than decoration and bauble. What that means is that art addresses one of our greatest challenges: to see not only outward things, their surface & shine, but what lives within that animates & inspires.
In ancient China (the story goes) before an artist began to paint anything — a tree, for instance — he would sit down in front of it for days, months, years, it didn’t matter how long, until he was the tree … until there was no space between him and its beauty, its movement, the shadow, the depth of a leaf, the quality of its colors, its palpable form. When he becomes the tree, then, and only then, does he paint.
Must every artist become the landscape or every painter his painting in order to see what’s there, to know what s/he’s doing? Must every viewer devote that kind of attention to see an artist’s work? I don’t know. But I do know that seeing is deep. It is not a shallow, passive, experience of like & dislike. I do know that every painting that has presence reveals more than its paint shows or, if you will, more than the eye alone can see. And I know that when that happens it is either a happy accident or a moment of sunlight coming through the mirror.