How Do We Experience Art?

Alexander Calder’s ‘Gwenfritz’
Alexander Calder’s ‘Gwenfritz’ will be reinstalled in its original location on the west side of the American History Museum in October. This mock-up shows the sculpture at its new and old home in a reflecting pool, part of Calder’s intended aesthetic. Image courtesy of Ewing Cole

Discussing the preeminence of color in painting last week got me thinking about how we really experience art—with our eyes or in our minds. It seems like such a simple, straightforward question, yet it always stirs controversy.

We don’t hear, smell or taste art (kissing doesn’t count). Above all, it appeals to our sense of sight. Rich colors, overpowering size, delicate details—characteristics like these can be described, but many believe that when it comes to art there is nothing that compares to seeing a work with your own eyes. Ask any art history professor and he or she will wax tirelessly about firsthand viewing and the necessity of seeing art in person, not on a gritty slide. To a certain extent, I’d have to agree. My moment of conversion came at the Galleria Borghese. I had researched and studied Bernini’s work exhaustively; read all the scholarship and seen countless photographs. But as much as I knew that he was a consummate sculptor, nothing prepared me for seeing the Rape of Proserpina with my own eyes. That hand indenting the flesh on that thigh—the virtuosity of it is beyond words, but not beyond sight.

On the other hand, much of modern art has been created around various intellectual orthodoxies. The pursuit of abstract expressionism was about tapping into the essence of painting—the flat canvas and the gesture of the artist. Conceptual art budded in the 1960s and with it came the philosophy that the execution of an artwork was beside the point. It was the compelling idea for the work that was crucial. Even impressionism, credited as one of the most aesthetically pleasing art movements, explored the heady idea that painting should give a sense of immediacy and reflect how the eye interprets motion.

Obviously the answer to this question isn’t mutually exclusive. Appreciating art doesn’t preclude the visual or intellectual. But only after isolating each argument does one get a sense of how effective art is.

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