Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, May 28, 2005

The Case of the Contemporary Viewer

In the Philosophical Fragments, Kirkegaard raises the question of the status of the contemporary disciple and the disciple at second hand relative to the absolute paradox of Reason attempting to approach God. At first blush, the contemporary disciple, who can learn from God directly in the servant-form of the incarnation, has an advantage over those who will come later. This person sees God directly, touches God’s human form. It turns out this advantage is illusory, that the accumulation of knowledge of God in incarnate form is not sufficient to grasp the Eternal, which remains forever beyond the capacity of finite humans to comprehend by their own efforts. That knowledge is bestowed by God as Faith. I don’t think Kirkegaard says this, but in some ways the contemporary discipline is at a disadvantage because he or she may mistake the accumulation of temporal detail for knowledge of God the Eternal. The disciple at second hand is more likely to understand that knowledge of the paradox is beyond the thinner store of temporal information available in that age.

The problem reminds me of the problem which faces the viewer of art in a close-knit community. That viewer has the chance to know the artist who has made the art works on display. Acquaintance with the artist as a person by all accounts enhances understanding of the art as object or artifact. Talk to the maker, then take a look. Pity the poor person who has to comprehend the work without this guidance from the horse’s mouth, pity future generations who will rely on what records they can find. Art dealers, make sure buyers get a chance to form a connection with your artists.

Just like the problem of the contemporary disciple, the contemporary viewer may not have an advantage. The artist’s statements substitute for the personal work of looking at the piece and seeing what is there. The more weight you put on those statements, the more looking at the work becomes perfunctory or redundant. You know what is there without looking. The knowledge gained from your communication with artist may even prompt you to see things that are not physically present in the work.

For example, I met and talked to Bob Durham a few times before I saw many of his paintings. I built up impressions of him, such as a pervasive irreverence and wit. In his current exhibit at Cumberland Gallery, there is a large painting of a woman standing in a landscape. It is a quiet, autumnal painting. Bordering on reverent. But I know Durham, and I even know the model and the location. I can picture her face from our conversations, and she has a natural slyness of expression, often just about ready to break into a smile. In this painting, I see slyness sneaking in at the corners of her face. But do I see this or put it in myself? Which of Durham’s brushstrokes capture those qualities of her face? It is entirely possible that I filled in those details based on how I know he would depict this person.

In a way, the viewer who does not know the artist has an advantage in having no choice but to look at the work and take from it whatever it offers visually. If the piece is difficult, the viewer is forced to grapple with it, and gains a hard-earned understanding.

Works of art are orphans relative to their creator, available for adoption by each viewer. The artist might be tempted to hover around the work, guide viewers into it and out of, but that is hopeless. The viewer has to take the art work upon himself or herself if it is to have the full meaning art can have. The image becomes part of the viewer’s personality, which is out of the artist’s range of control. The viewer pushes the artist aside, and makes the work their own. The artist has his or her child stolen countless times.

Comprehension of a work of art, at a level where it acts on the viewer, occurs on a radically personal level of encounter between consciousness and the art work. It is akin to revelation, the mind taking in something irreducible to descriptive facts. Sometimes that revelation occurs simply from the physical encounter with the work – its aura, as Benjamin would have it, works on you. In other cases, something extraneous to the work, such as the words of the artist or another commentator, can serve as the prompt that opens up the possibility for revelation. But those prompts must point the mind back into the work, otherwise they are substitutes for the work or hearsay. “I have been told this is a great work, capturing such and such a spirit or experience.” No, in that case the art work is a prop to illustrate some words. The words may have great power and significance – a hymn to love, the account of the beginning of the world or its end, the great works of a god. But to experience the work of art as an illustration of a verbal explanation is a different experience than that which occurs when any words only serve to set up a moment of visual communication.

Viewing art requires a shift of consciousness to allow the visual encounter to occur fully. This remains true whether one speaks to the artist or not. The viewer at first hand, acquainted with the creator as well as the work, runs the risk of confusing the explanation with a visual experience. The viewer at first hand also has additional prompts to point to the work, as long as she or he remembers to look for the way back. In other words, this viewer has advantages and disadvantages over viewers separated by time or space from direct knowledge of the maker. For the viewer at second hand, the work may lose some of its vividness, but its orphan status is more clear, and this clarifies the viewer’s job.


  • Where on-line can I find The Scene's complete David Maddox write-up of Durham's current show?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:58 PM  

  • Here's the URL


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