Honey, I Think I Ate Van Gogh

February 5, 2012 § 2 Comments

Solar Dance, by Modris Ecksteins.

Lacking the desire to review this book, I struggle to find things to say about it. This book, which tells the story of Vincent van Gogh and his art and that which ties the Dutch master into the broader history of modern culture, demands debate. That’s not something I particularly want to get into here, and so, let’s talk about visual art.

"The Kiss" - Gustav Klimt, 1907-1908

I have a strange dream where there’s a “perfect” art gallery that has everything ever made in it. It’s just a long gallery with a glass ceiling where daylight always streams through, and you can walk at your own pace to take in the art. All of it.

Two swimming reindeer carved into a mammoth tusk, about 13,000 years old.

You could walk down the hall and trace the path of what humans call “art”, and it would be wonderful. I can’t shake the feeling, however, that you would miss something. I’m not sure what you would “miss”, because that suggests that art is supposed to hit you in a certain way. The Kiss, for one example, was highly erotic when it came out in 1908, but to someone who’s had the internet for about 11 years doesn’t quite have the same zing.

"Chi Rho" from the Book of Kells, circa 800 C.E.

I wonder then, through this gallery in my head, just how we experience art. Books, my preferred method, are easy to understand. You read them, preferably in a quiet place where you won’t be bothered by outside stimuli, and take in the words. The physical book is just a vector of transmission for the meaning of the words. It’s a rather beautiful, if strangely disgusting metaphor, that in writing, words are viruses that infect the brain. The art of writing is that the medium is not the message. The message exists in a super-state that sits above the medium. The medium matters, I’d never say it doesn’t, but it’s all the same virus in the end.

"Monet Reading" - Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1872

Not so with visual art. The pictures that you see here, despite being almost completely faithful reproductions of the pieces still lack something. Looking at them feels like being a scientist trying to prove a negative. I know that something isn’t there that should be, but I have no way of telling what that is. Perhaps this is the crisis of the modern age of art, where mechanical reproductions do away with the power of a piece. Go and see the Mona Lisa, but it’s nothing you haven’t already seen before. A poster, a picture, a .jpg is just as good as the “real thing”.

"Red Balloon" - Paul Klee, 1922

And that’s when my dream collapses. It never is as good as the “real” thing, and now that we can see and experience every piece of art (well, almost) through the computer screen, it’s not enough. Now, the quest for the authentic experience matters. The image itself is not enough, Art must be seen. It must be an in-person exchange to be as powerful as it can. Perhaps that’s how it ever was.

"Haida Grizzly Bear" - Bill Reid

I think what is missed by simply viewing and not seeing art pieces is the infectious element. The aesthetic beauty of the piece, in and of itself is not (usually) diminished by it’s representation as a picture on a screen, but the ability for the art to reach out and touch you is. The ideas in books are subtle parasites that are infectious regardless of how they are experienced, but art, if it is not allowed to reach out and poke past our modern defenses, aren’t able to implant themselves.

Visual art, just like all art, should attack you. It should stare you right back in the eye and wait for you to blink. It won’t.

"Guernica" - Pablo Picasso, 1937

If not, if it’s just taken in at a glance and not allowed to speak, then the art isn’t seen. It’s devoured.

"Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear" - Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Next week: Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay.

And don’t forget! I still have a contest running for the rest of the day, so if you want to see something on this site, let me know in the comments what you like/don’t like about the content you’ve seen so far. Prizes? Of course! Check yesterday’s post if you want more info.

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§ 2 Responses to Honey, I Think I Ate Van Gogh

  • Dr Orpheus says:

    What are your thoughts on art prints? More ‘real’ than computers, but still not quite the same as the real thing?

    • Calamanas says:

      The big things to me are size and presence. For example, Mucha’s “Slavic Epic” needs to be seen as a gigantic, 8x10m frame. It just needs to. And presence just means that it needs to be seen outside of other elements. Like how reading a book is best when that’s all you’re doing, seeing art is best when it’s the only thing you’re looking at. That’s why I actually like galleries, because you’re in the mindset of “I am going here to look at Art” when you go there.

      So actually, a print is fine. It’s not perfect because you lack some of the elements like texture, but you don’t have much choice in the end. I wish we could all have van Goghs, but, y’know.

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