Looking like what it looks like

So. I have been thinking about visual art, mainly as a result of a blog post by a friend who is a conceptual artist, He was thinking about the apparent chasm of understanding between conceptual art and what we may, for lack of a better term, call ‘the public’. His thoughts prodded me into thinking about the root of the problem which goes much further back than conceptual art.It seems to me, as a non-visual-arts-practitioner, that part of this issue with the visual arts stems from the origins of the discipline in representation. Now, I am not saying that representation is the core of visual art, but for many centuries the practice of visual art has been based around representation. Broadly, people have judged visual art on whether it looks like what it is meant to be, so when works of visual art cease to be about ‘looking like something’ people turn away from them as they are unable to engage.

Of course, visual art has always been about more than ‘looking like something’: much renaissance art is based around allegory and symbols, which viewers at the time would have recognised, but which most of us, now, do not recognise. ‘Reading’ such a painting is more than seeing what it looks like. Unfortunately, recognition of the need for ‘reading’ among the broader audience has been weak, so when we get into the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth century the gap between practitioners and audience gets broader. Until we get to the stage we are know with a divide between popular art which ‘looks like something’ (e.g. Jack Vettriano) and unpopular art which does not.

That was as far as I had got until a recent trip to Paris which took in the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Musée d’Orsay, both of which have collections of late 19th and early 20th century paintings and sculpture. Looking at those collections it was clear that the ‘problem’, or better, the ‘divergence’ really kicks in with the Impressionists who have a different approach to ‘what it looks like’, resulting in works thst would have had them laughed out of the eighteenth-century academy. Not that they couldn’t have produced works of academy style and standard, but they chose a different way of looking (and, not that the academicians thought they were only dealing ‘what it looks like’).

Once that different way has started there’s no going back: ‘looking like what it looks like’ in the academy way is no longer the path: that get us to post-impressionism, cubism and all the rest. And that’s fine. There is no requirement for works of visual art to resemble anything: but there are, I suggest, requirements of competence and good faith.

Good faith: that’s a bit of a strange one, isn’t it? Maybe, but it came to me as I was looking at the Matisses in the Orangerie and comparing them to the Derains on the opposite wall. The heads of Matisse’s people looked wrong. Not grotesquely wrong, or ‘I-can’t-do-any-better wrong’ (which is what we excuse in Rousseau), but very deliberately not quite right. He chose to do that, even though he could have painted them ‘right’. That faux naïf approach from a man who clearly could draw annoyed me, like a good musician deliberately playing out of tune.

Of course, he had a reason for doing that (at least, I hope he did), a reason which overrode the need to ‘look like’. Unfortunately, I’m not able to get past the naiveté to connect with that reason.

But opposite that was Derain’s Table de cuisine (Kitchen Table) a painting that ‘looks like’ something, a lot of things, but also does more than that. I find it difficult to describe exactly what that ‘more’ is, but I think it lies in the arrangement of the items and their emphasised edges. We have more than just an image of a kitchen table and some kitchen objects. Derain has given us the table and some.

I don’t have a snappy conclusion to these thoughts: I am still thinking and happy to listen to the views of the better informed.

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