A painting is good not because it looks like something, but because it feels like something.*
Every great work of art has two faces, one toward its own time and one toward the future, toward eternity.**
These days I am reading Canterbury Tales. Years ago, in high school, this was required reading, but at that time I could not appreciate Chaucer. He was notorious. Now I marvel at the beauty, depth and eloquence of his writing. Just the first eighteen lines of the Tales, the first sentence, is an amazing composition! The sound of the words, the mixture of middle english, french and latin, and even the humor are wonderful. What I could not appreciate then, I am appreciating now. My aesthetic tastes have changed.
In a previous installment I concluded that the appreciation of beauty was a subjective experience and I still hold this to be true. Having said this, there are factors that distinguish ‘good’ art from ‘poor’ art. There are objective factors that make art art. What is it that makes Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a work of lasting beauty while some other piece of writing is lost in oblivion? Why is it that I often listen to a piece of music and initially enjoy it but then quickly loose interest, and yet another piece of music that I initially dislike gradually begins to ‘grow’ on me? Why do I like certain things and yet dislike other things. There is more to this than mere subjectivity. I have on my shelve works on design, color theory, composition and tone, all tools used by painters, musicians and writers to produce objects of beauty.
I am looking at a huge painting by an impressionist artist, Gustave Caillebotte, entitled Paris Street, Rainy Day. What is interesting about this painting is that it is modeled after photography. It has depth of field. It is as if the “camera” of this painting is focused on the middle ground so both the foreground and the background are slightly out of focus. In fact, the farther one looks into the distance of the painting the more out of focus it becomes, just as happens with a camera or the human eye. If you stand before this painting you suddenly feel that you are standing in the streets of Paris! This masterpiece has an uncanny power to place the viewer into the street scene, and if one has been to Paris your imagination comes alive and you begin to smell, taste and feel Paris. We also know that this painting went through hundreds of pre painting renderings before the final version was made. This is the same with every other famous work of art, piece of literature or music. We even know that Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales had many workings. Very little art comes as a result of spontaneous inspiration. Every great work is the result of a huge amount of labor with just a touch of inspiration. Principles of design, color, sound, grammar and composition are always employed. Art is not random or unplanned. It is highly conscious. And the more learned and conscious the viewer is the higher the level of appreciation.
The other day I was listening to a piece of music that I had recently acquired. My habit is that if I am interested in some music I listen to it dozens and even hundreds of times and gradually “learn” the music. Each listening takes me deeper into the piece, but if boredom sets in after a few sessions it means the music lacks substance. Good music holds my attention. As I listened to this particular piece of music, not only did it hold my attention, it dawned on me that it was utterly beautiful! I suddenly felt a rush of enjoyment, my hair stood on end and tears came to my eyes as a listened. This music was having a profound emotional effect on me, and yet I know little about music. Very good music not only has staying power, it also has the power to evoke an emotional response. It occurred to me that viewing a painting is no different than listening to music. I do not need to know everything about art before I can enjoy and even purchase art. The real criterion for judging a painting is the same as listening to music: Does the painting have holding power and can it evoke an emotional response in me? Making judgments about music is my second nature. Buying music is never a problem, so if I can do this with music I can do it with paintings. The main difference of course is that music is inexpensive while paintings are expensive. We buy copies of music, not the original master, whereas we are talking of purchasing an original painting, not a copy. If I purchase a painting that at first seems good, but in the end does not at least have staying power, not to mention the ability to evoke an emotional response, then the loss can be great. The stakes are higher. My taste in music has developed over years, while my taste in painting is still immature. So I will continue to study and look at as many paintings as possible and then gradually, as my experience and tastes mature, my “Chauser” or “Caillebotte” will one day appear. In the meantime why not purchase a few copies of master paintings as we do music?