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How Should We View Art?

Samantha Plate's picture

Samantha Plate

Play In The City

Mark Lord


How Should We View Art?

            In my viewing of The Postman at The Barnes Foundation, I experienced two different ways in which to experience the painting. After writing my paper, learning more about the history, and participating in class discussion, I have begun to question those two techniques. More importantly, I began to question which method was better. Is the experience of viewing art, and learning, through feeling and emotional connection better than through analyzing the details?

My automatic reaction to The Postman led me to view the painting through feeling. I made an emotional connection with the painting and I let it speak to me. I did not try to think about certain things, nor did I try to become thoughtless. The thoughts that ran through my head contained a range of emotions and resulted in the urge to cry. I felt like I truly saw the real beauty in the painting, and without any outside influence. I was aware of the experience I was having in a way not unlike deep play. Surely this was the best possible way to view a piece of art, the best way to learn.

However, I still made myself approach the painting as Barnes would have wanted. I examined the use of color and the geometric shapes. I began to pull things from the painting. I began to question every aspect of the painting, searching for hidden symbols and clues to the artist’s intent. I was trying to prove I knew the painting the way that Roberts knew A Boy with a Flying Squirrel. I tried to force an epiphany upon myself. This is not to say that I didn’t gain great insight into the painting. In fact, I noticed much more than I had upon my original impression. However, by working so hard to understand the painting, the experience of viewing it seemed to loose “authenticity”.

When trying to decide which method of viewing, and ultimately learning, is “better”, it is important to figure out what “better” is meant to indicate. It seems that there is something to be discovered through both art and learning. There is something that, if the experience is done right, can be uncovered. What this thing is is not quite definable- it may be a moment of deep play, a revelation, or an “authentic” experience as Percy Walker would claim. So when trying to decide which method is “better”, maybe it should be the one that is most likely to result in this special experience.

The problem with deciding which method is “better” is that the two methods are not completely distinct. When I wrote my last paper I came away with the idea that letting the art speak to you and letting your feelings and emotions control your viewing is better than trying to pull something from the painting, that may not even be there. It seemed that the first way played the believing game, while the second merely doubted. I felt like the harder one looks, the harder it is to see. However, there was a lot to be gained from looking closely at the painting. I noticed a lot more, and I began to play more of the believing game and less of the doubting game over the course of those 30 minutes. In addition, when I first had an emotional reaction to the painting, I began to play the doubting game. I did not understand why I was feeling so connected to the art, and I tried to think of outside reasons that could be influencing me. I doubted the authenticity of my experience. In this way, the believing and doubting games melded together and I switched from one to the other many times throughout my viewing. My experience with The Postman shows both the positive and negatives to both ways of viewing, and that they often cannot be fully separated. By utilizing both methods, it may be possible to get the “better” experience. I would propose to learn through listening. Go into the process with an open mind and let what you are viewing speak for itself. But at the same time, pay attention to the details. Examine why you feel certain emotions. Look for the connections between things within the painting and between the painting the world outside of it. Try to use multiple points of view. Imagine you are Barnes, think about the history behind it, and consider the social repercussions it had, but also acknowledge what it means to you. A painting may be worth millions of dollars, but if you do not see the worth in it than that monetary value has no meaning.

As a learning experience, Walker Percy may question the validity of what I call “authentic”. I believe he would consider the challenge of using multiple points of view as important, but more is needed for the experience to be “authentic”. Percy wants our experiences to be natural and unshaped by outside influences. It is usually impossible to be the first person to see or experience something, but he claims you can find a similar experience if you know nothing about what you are seeing. It is even better if you just happen upon this item without trying to find it, but that often is not possible either. However, going to the Barnes with the specific purpose of finding a painting to write about and hoping to experience deep play would not constitute an authentic experience for Percy. Percy would have preferred the original Barnes, where nearly everyone who entered had never seen any of the art work before. Although this isn’t quite the authentic experience Percy wants for us, it is closer because one goes in without any prior knowledge and hopefully without any goals in mind. Percy would find both ways of viewing art the way I described both good and bad for many reasons. The idea of letting the art speak for itself rather than trying to pull something out of it would likely appeal to him. However Percy would likely also propose pulling oneself out of the experience and viewing the art and the patrons around it from a distant analytical point of view. But just like I propose many ways to learn, Percy also suggests many ways to experience things, some of which are contradictory, so we may never know what he would think of the Barnes.

Throughout this analysis it has become apparent that there are many was to both view art and approach learning. And there are also many people with differing opinions on which way is best. Depending on what you are trying to learn and experience, different methods work different ways. Just like some paintings are more value to an individual than others, so are the methods in which they view the painting. The important thing is to keep an open mind and try multiple ways until you find the best combination that works for you.