Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Eyes of Art

September 20

There will be a PBS "American Masters" program on Andy Warhol tonight, and that reminded me of an angry letter I got from a friend a couple of years ago railing about what a charlatan Andy Warhol was. The letter showed a visceral reaction (Warhol would have loved that) to the work and to the man, and revealed how little my friend knew about the function of art and the artist. I felt there was absolutely no point in broaching the subject with this person until he had a little more information, so I recommended to him that he watch the show tonight.

I was perhaps harder on him than I needed to be when I wrote, "I think you're somehow stuck on the idea that art designed to piss the viewer off is not art. But it is -- or can be, if well executed and clear -- and it is not always obvious to the untrained eye (or the closed mind) that the artist producing the work is first-rate." He responded with, "If the sole purpose of art is to provoke emotion, then the field of art is wide open to anything. But then that has always been the case, therefore we can say that there is no limitation on what could be considered art; it does not have to contain any beauty, any harmony, it just has to produce an emotion, and more emotion produced, the better the art." Just when I thought he was getting it, he went off to describe the possibilities: Norman Rockwell paintings of Christians being fed to the lions or piles of bodies in the concentration camps.

Aside from the revelation that the writer had never seen Picasso's Guernica or probably any other major work of 20th Century art, it is clear that, had he lived at the turn of the 19th Century he would be railing against the "abominations" produced by the French Impressionists, as the critics and most of the public did at the time. It leaves me with little to say except that art is different things to different people, and those who are open to learn about it, through viewing and sometimes study, will reap benefits they never dreamed of. Some of us will enjoy the "American Masters" presentation tonight.

The blog yesterday provoked a response that threw me for a loop. I wrote about looking into eyes as a way to follow a movie story, and the writer maintains that eyes "say" nothing. This astounded me. I have been looking into people's eyes all my life, and, while I don't claim to have been able to see their souls, I cannot imagine that anybody can read a face without looking into eyes. He says, not. Eyeballs are just eyeballs; they don't reveal emotions, they don't reflect thoughts, they are not windows to anything. They are a completely neutral facial feature, and anybody who believes otherwise has just been reading too many cheap novels.

That reminds me of a Dorothy Parker line, "Was it La Rochefecauld who said,'If there were no novels, nobody would be in love'?"

But as to the eyes, I'm sorry. Eyes are like art, you can see a lot there if you know how to look.


Benedict S. said...

"Eyes are like art, you can see a lot there if you know how to look." And perhaps the greatest allure is that we do not know and cannot know all there is to know in what we see.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Art and its value is debatable -- some do not appreciate the work of Jackson Pollack, Ad Reinhardt, or other challenging painters -- but the astounding thing to me is that some people do not appreciate eyes! I am still in shock from this revelation.

Benedict S. said...

Maybe this'll help. It's not the eyes themselves that are revealing, but your seeing. The eyes could be the most soul-full in the world, but without your soul, nothing would be there.

Bert Bananas said...

Clumping in, picking my nose, I assume my role as the barbarian at the gate...

All I was quibbling about was the shortcut writers, and others, take when they talk about the eyes being the windows to the soul, the eyes revealing emotions, etc.

The eyed DO just sit there! It's the facial expressions, the set and play of the muscles that reveal the possible emotional state of the possessor of said orbs. That's what our minds are reading when we (well, not me) say 'her eyes revealed the depth of her longing...'

The phrase "poker face" exists because poker players, and those seeking to hide emotion, attempt to relax their facial expressions so as NOT to reveal anything.

Fair Hope, I thought you would at least get the point I was trying to make. Just because shortcuts exist and people are used to taking them doesn't make them the proper route to follow.

Barbarian exits, stage front

Finding Fair Hope said...

Banana barbarian, don't leave! I'm sure I can get what you're driving at if you keep trying. But as I read you, I still think you're saying there might not be something going on "behind" the eyes, something that by looking into the eyes, one can observe to learn something about what the owner of the eyes is thinking or feeling.

The poker player can draw the curtain down behind his eyes. It's quite a trick, and something tells me you've been doing it for years.

John Sweden said...

“The eyes have it”. Not very original I admit, but then, with apologies to Freud and deference to Bert, “Sometimes a Banana is just a Banana”. I would argue that the reason ff is disappointed in the response to her astute observations about the nature of eyes, is that all logical, rationalistic and scientific descriptions of the world are inhuman. They fail to engage the human mind at all but the lowest levels of human perception and understanding. They take us nowhere that the human soul wants or needs to go.

While being 98%, technically and scientifically, correct, Bert misses an important point. The eyes have many expressive qualities that are unique to themselves, such as the responsive and irresponsive dilation of the pupils, the clouding of the lenses that sometimes accumulate with age, or the sharpness of the colors themselves, etc…etc… this 1.9% of ocularity (new word derived from jocularity) can make the difference of life, death and love to the whole expression. Artists, particularly portrait painters and photographers, know this. Most, philosophers, fewer scientists and fewer still pseudo-philosopher/scientists, don’t.

You might be pondering, “Well, what about that other remaining .01%”? It is the defining, unique and charming aspect of intimate human perception, the knowing, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That, my fellow Fairhopians, is exclusively in the “Eyes of Artists, Poets and Lovers”.