“I Don’t Know How to Look at Art”

Inside the Mind of Picasso, acrylic, oil crayon and resin on wood, 24″x24″, 2003

There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot. But there are others who transform a yellow spot into the sun.
Pablo Picasso

“I don’t know how to look at art.” More than a few people have told me this over the years. At my shows. At galleries. At museums. I’m always confused, because telling me you don’t know how to look at art is like telling me you don’t know how to have sex. What’s not to know?

Many insecurely believe there is some intellectual component to consuming fine art. Some creativity-appreciating gene. This misses the fundamental point of art’s inherent power to sweep over you like wind or water. To cool you down, heat you up and draw from you an emotion you did not even know was hiding beneath the surface of your daily life.

There is no more learning to look at art than there is learning to listen to music or learning to smell a rose. That lemony smell or that opening guitar riff in Reelin In The Years makes you feel more alive. More grateful. More eager. Or more disgusted, dejected, hopeless. I once stood in front of a Degas ballerina painting for fifteen minutes crying like a baby. Something about the dedication on the young girl’s face and the turn of her hand, which, mind you, was nothing more than a dab of ocher paint. And what the hell do I know? I got a business degree in college.

Sometimes I play a game with myself and pretend I have been blind for decades and just regained my sight. Then I look up at the sky. And that lone bird or ominous cloud becomes poetic, the thing that blind me would have given all the money in the world to see just one more time. Do that with a loved one. And watch their all-too-familiar face regain a magic moment of novelty.

So, those of you who think they don’t know how to look at art, just look in a mirror. Study your own face. It is an unbelievable construction. Or hit a museum. Or put a mask on and look at a coral reef. Or study your kid’s scribbles. Look/listen/taste/smell something. Notice whatever you notice. Whether you are basking or recoiling you are appreciating it as well as any up-his-own-ass art critic ever did.



11 thoughts on ““I Don’t Know How to Look at Art”

  1. Greetings. LPI where we met some years ago is now a memory for us both. My husband died 3 years ago. I left LPI a year ago and am exploring my new incarnation . If you remember I said my husband made me a better person. Now I’ m finding out who I still am after 43 years together. I’m still a better person- gee I hope I’ve learned something. I teach yoga and instruct in meditation and do massage therapy in my studio on Big Pine Key. One of days I’ll get to Miami and try to get together.

    Your comments tweaked my interest because I’m always trying to find cogent quotes to post on my Facebook business account and at my studio for students to chew on.
    I love a mind that doesn’t go with the mainstream. That’s the only way one can grow. Thankfully and gratefully I’ve found another man to whom I can talk. His name is also Bill. Namaste ml

    1. Marylee – you made an impact on me when we met and i am glad you are moving forward on the journey. Bill was one of a kind. And his energy is all around us. And I’m sure your new friend is another bright light.

  2. Ever since last spring, right around my birthday, when one of my dearest friends decided to take a little walk out into the woods, away from the house, away from his friends, away from knowing eyes and ears, and then lifted a gun up to his mouth, inserted the barrel, and blew his life away, I have hated art. Not all art, just painted art. My friend was a painter. Writing this now, I realize that it seems like a juvenile or even a scripted, manufactured reaction, but it is genuine. You see, he used to have his canvases leaning everywhere, at his place, at friend’s places. He had his little bottles of paint stashed in toolboxes and stuffed in backpacks; he had plastic containers full of brushes. He was into art and art history and architecture and books and justice and beauty. He was always showing me his latest masterwork. For fun, he would speed-paint, and create what I thought were landscape masterpieces much like some people whip up a gourmet meal in the kitchen. He had a gift. I have never really mourned his passing. I have been way too angry with him for that. I have not gotten to the place were I want to understand the “why.” After the violent act, when everyone looked to me for inspirational, meaningful, or just plain thoughtful words, words that I normally gave daily and easily, I withheld and withdrew. I have never, ever been quite so confused and quite so upset and disappointed. His was an act of betrayal — of our friendship, of our bond built over the years. He was always a little selfish. He was also a little crazy. But he was also a little funny, and a little wild, and a little gifted, and a little dreamy, and a little volatile, and a little artsy, and a little mischievous, and a lot like a brother. And he was faster than me. Yes he would outrun me in a dash, but he would give me the shirt off his back, and he would help me move apartments in the driving rain. And we would jump off of really high bridges into the water, and we would chase the girls together, and we would dive deep into the ocean, and we would lazy around the beach at sunset, and we would scream and yell at each other and pal around arm in arm. And until just yesterday, I had not heard his voice for nearly a year, until I was looking though an old iphone and found a few saved voice messages from him. I played one of them over a couple of times, listening for something. He had left a message about meeting up a little later in the afternoon, and remarked on what a beautiful day South Florida had served up. He had left it a couple of weeks before the end, and there was absolutely nothing that hinted at what was coming. Nothing. I think that that cluelessness is what has made this so hard for me. My feelings about it and him are such a tangle. I could understand a tragic accident or a horrible disease. I see so many people struggling to make it through the day, or the week or the month, struggling to find some magic formula to have the good days outnumber the bad. And then I think of what he did. It was just such bad behavior; so unacceptable and disgusting to me. Like if I had known he was capable of that, I would never have accepted him as a friend, I would never had introduced him to my family. These are the people you steer clear of in life, at least that’s how the thinking goes. And I think that that is why anything that reminded me of his one true passion, his art, I just avoided.

    And then just recently, during Art Basel week, out of curiosity more than anything else, I went to a few galleries shows. Once there, I noticed that I had no interest in the painted canvases. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to look at art, although I don’t, or how to appreciate art; it was that I felt nothing. I had no reaction to anything. Truth be told, the people walking around the place were more interesting than anything on the walls. So, not wanting to waste the experience, I turned my attention to the people walking around doing all the genuine appreciating and reacting. I noticed the artists, and their agents, engaging with the people. I eavesdropped on the conversations between them. I listened to the “reactions” and the “histories” and the “pitches” and the exchanges of contact information for future transacting. And I soaked in the multitude of people, the crowds, the spectacle of the marketplace. Art enthusiasts, aficionados, the scene-sters, the hangers-on, those unfortunate significant-others dragged there against their will on that glorious Sunday afternoon. And then, I turned a corner and I noticed something really unique. It was a piece of art, a really cool model of an interior space. As I got closer, I noticed it was depiction of a scene inside of a grandly designed library — with people walking to and fro, and others sitting studiously at long tables, and still others searching along the walls lined with books, and the grand architecture of a 19th century, neo-gothic interior, with soaring arches and stately windows. But this was all in miniature. Barely ten inches tall and eighteen inches wide. As I got even closer, I was further drawn in when I noticed that in fact, I was looking at an angled mirror, and I was seeing the reflection of this scene as it was modeled, with exacting precision and lighting, into the rectangular box that ran up from the ground and held up the mirror. The grand windows at the end of the library were, in fact, at my feet. Apart from being completely blown away and marveling at this piece from every angle for the next fifteen to twenty minutes, I felt an overwhelming urge to share this piece with everybody who walked by. And it seemed like everybody was just passing it up, glancing and walking on to the next display. I found myself engaging with those folks that did stop to take a closer look. I felt like everybody needed to see this thing. I wanted to share this piece. It was not only a unique piece, but also it was seriously thought through, designed, built, painted, assembled. I stayed there for quite a while, appreciating the artist for his vision, and for his effort, and for his stamina. As I left the piece, and strolled along, rejoining the procession, I began to pay closer attention to all of the art. There were all sorts of pieces, some which tricked the eye, some which shocked the eye, and others that pleased the eye. And I found myself taking more than just a passing glance at the canvases. No, I didn’t feel anything more than before, and I didn’t take the time to study any of the painted pieces. That might take a while. But I did appreciate the work and the courage that it took to create something out of nothing, painted or sculpted, designed or inspired, and to put it up on a wall or a stage for the world to judge and criticize and be moved by, or feel nothing at all. We each bring only ourselves to view the art in front of us. You can only feel what you feel. Some might arrive at the moment and experience the art with new love in their life, others with love lost, still others with haunted memories. To that gallery, I brought the memory of my departed friend, whom I am still furious at. But I wish I could have shared that miniature library piece with him. He would have liked it. We could have discussed the intricacies and the accuracies, the genius and the errors, and we would have shared it others. Art is, after all, just another way to share. I don’t know why I wrote all of this down, here in the comments section of all places, or why today of all days, but there was something in your message and there was something in the air, and I just felt like sharing.

  3. “Je ferme les yeux pour voir.” P. Gaugin.
    I enjoyed your post, brother. Now off to listen to Elliot Randall’s solo in Reelin’ in the Years, apparently yours, mine and Jimmy Page’s favorite.

  4. Stu I love looking at art with you! And remember we saw those awesome dioramas that A Friend mentions. To A Friend – I’m so sorry for your loss. People are surprising in so many ways, some beautiful and some awful….

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