Asking ‘better’ questions about Art

“Have you seen the movie Ghost? Is that local clay? Is the furnace your kiln? What kind of paint do we use. Do you do this all day?”— Typical questions to the artist from visitors at the pottery studio of Tony Clennell

If you are a potter you may have heard these same questions before or ones just like them. They seem designed to drive us crazy. They seem to almost comically miss the point. What are these people looking for? Why are they asking these things? Don’t they get it?

Obviously not. But is there a preferred way to understand art, to look at it, to make sense of what artists do? Well, sometimes clearly there is a tragic difference between an audience ‘getting it’ and not, so it seems there are real and important variations in how we can know a work of art. But are there objectively ‘better’ ways of understanding than others? If we haven’t seen the movie Ghost, for instance, are we missing something important about pottery? (Heh, heh)

What we do know often seems to be imperfect, a lesser form of understanding than is possible. Its sometimes obvious that there are better ways of looking at things. And we can unlock more of the important details by asking better questions. But what are the right questions that need to be asked? It seems true that even brilliant answers to the wrong questions get nowhere fast. Asking the right questions must surely be the best way forward. So….

I just read an interesting essay that takes a stand on what sorts of questions are the right ones. Its a good read. Here’s the short version:

Don’t ask:

  1. Why is that art?
  2. What is it meant to be?
  3. A four year old could do that, couldn’t they?

Instead ask:

  1. What can I see just by looking at this art work?
  2. How was this art work actually made?
  3. When was it made, and what was happening in art and broader history at that time?
  4. Why did the artist create this work and what is its meaning to them, and to us now?

The author thinks these last four are the better questions, “Questions that will finally yield some answers”. Perhaps these are the questions that will let us finally know art for what it really is….. Maybe?

Personally, I think a legitimate question is whether there necessarily is a ‘better’ vantage to understand art from and what this might even mean. Does ‘better’ mean ‘more accurate’? Is there is an objectivity to aspire to? Does ‘better’ inhabit the understanding of the artist, the educated audience, the culture in which it was produced, none of these, or all of these? ‘Better’ seems to imply a ‘best’, and if it doesn’t, then what does that tell us? How exactly is ‘better’ determined? Is ‘better’ something on a continuum of quality or is it instrumental, for instance? (Does science aim at ‘truth’ or understanding how things work?)

The four ‘better’ questions he asks could almost surely not have come from anyone who is not an art historian or seriously educated in art historical themes. And the questions themselves are interesting, to me at least. I’m just not sure that “What can I see just by looking at this art work?” is valuable as anything besides what it teaches me about what I can see just by looking at this art work. I’m also not sure that “How was this art work actually made?” answers anything besides how this art work was actually made….. These are different questions. Are they better questions? Is there some instrumental value that is handed to us by knowing these things? Do they necessarily point to anything beyond themselves? That seems like a good question too.

You don’t need to be an art historian to ask good art questions. For instance, what would a psychologist ask? “What was the mental state of the artist as she was making this? What was going on in her life at the time?” perhaps? Or, “How did her childhood influence her perspective on this particular creative issue?” What would a geologist like to know about a potter’s work? What would a chemist like to know about paintings? What would a gymnast like to know about a dance performance? What would a poet like to know about a stage production? What would a gallerist like to know about a sculptor? What would a banker like to know about a jeweler?………

To understand art better do you need to ask ALL these questions? Is it like filling in the blanks? An unfinished puzzle or one that has missing pieces? Is ‘better’ simply more comprehensive, more things filled in? But then even poor questions shed light. We can even learn by understanding what questions not to ask. Understanding can be indirect. So even looking towards a more comprehensive view still leaves us with the determination of good (accurate) questions and bad (inaccurate). Right? Does being comprehensive include what we consider to be ‘bad’ questions? And in what way? Has inclusiveness solved what we are trying to figure out? Or has it simply moved the problem up a level? Maybe the pieces we gather don’t all fit the same puzzle. Maybe its not simply one puzzle to be solved but different versions that all seem to point at the same underlying thing……..

My point is that some questions matter more to some people than others, and there are legitimate reasons they do. What we want to know often says more about who we are than what we are looking at. The questions we are inclined to ask generally follow the lines of things we are interested in. We are motivated to want to uncover specific things. We have been led to these questions by the values of our beliefs, the path of our lives. And that’s not to say that there are not ‘bad’ questions, but bad for what? Bad according to whom? What, precisely, are they bad in terms of?

As Duchamp noted, “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” That seems to open the door beyond any one authority. Is there no one voice, then, who speaks for art?

If you ask an art historian you will get one response, and if you ask the artist themselves you may get something completely different. In that case can we say that the artist who doesn’t ask these art historical questions is therefor lacking in understanding? Does the art historian know the work better than the artist themselves? Maybe we would want to say that, but why? And is this a comment about the work itself or the merits of the perspectives? Are we talking about the art, or what can be said about it?

A quaint rustic scene, right?

A quaint rustic scene, right?

One other question is whether knowing more is always an advantage. Is it always the case that the more we know about a work of art the ‘better’ we will appreciate it? We have this phrase, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you”, and it seems to mean something not entirely irrelevant. For instance, I look at a painting of some rustic bucolic scene and think its decent. Then I look at the sign on the wall only to discover it was painted by Hitler. How does that change my perceptions? Does this added knowledge allow me to see the painting ‘better’? This is a question of the relation between knowing and seeing. Does new information always circumvent perceptual and conceptual biases or does it occasionally bolster them? Value often seems precariously balanced between what a thing is and what we think it is.

“I’m rich!” or not……

“Oh that’s a Degas. Isn’t it just marvelous!” Don’t we often see what we think we are looking at? Doesn’t understanding occasionally precede actual perception? Its always interesting when paintings that have been revered are pointed out as fakes. What we now know changes what we see. What do we learn from that? Is there a pure perceptual agnosticism at the end of ‘ultimate knowledge’? Will the ‘best’ view of art be perspective-free? Detached? Or is the ‘best’ view the view that aligns with human cultural values? How else can we justify the different appreciation for ‘authentic work’ and forgeries? Does value hang by such a slender thread?

If you notice, we are hardly looking at just the work of art itself in some cases. There is a penumbra of contingency that shapes how we see and what we see. Is ‘better’, therefor, part and parcel of contingent and historical accident? Provenance? If who made a work sometimes matters as much as what the work itself is are we actually seeing the work better if we absolutely know the author? Does knowing an artist’s style help us see the work more clearly? Or does it offer a shortcut that helps us ‘understand’ the work without actually seeing it? Is ‘knowing’ a perceptual comfort zone that occasionally induces our cognitive laziness? How does being deceived about the author connect with being deceived about the work itself?

Jonah Lehrer looked at these questions back when he was the new whiz kid of science journalism, and despite how we may feel about some of his other scholarship he makes some interesting observations (meta?). You can read his research here.

The first thing the researchers discovered is that there was no detectable difference in the response of visual areas to Rembrandt and “school of Rembrandt” works of art. The key word in that sentence is “detectable”: fMRI remains a crude tool, and just because it can’t pinpoint a significant difference between groups (especially given these limited sample sizes) doesn’t mean there is none. That said, it’s not exactly surprising that such similar paintings would elicit virtually identical sensory responses. It takes years of training before critics can reliably discern real Rembrandt from copies. And even then there is often extensive disagreement, as the 1995 Metropolitan show demonstrates. However, the scientists did locate a pattern of activity that appeared whenever a painting was deemed to be authentic, regardless of whether or not it was actually “real.” In such instances, subjects showed a spike in activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a chunk of brain just behind the eyes that is often associated with perceptions of reward, pleasure and monetary gain. (According to the scientists, this activation reflects “the increase in the perceived value of the artwork.”) Interestingly, there was no difference in orbitofrontal response when the stamp of authenticity was applied to a fake Rembrandt, as the brain area responded just as robustly. The quality of art seemed to be irrelevant.

The first thing the researchers discovered is that there was no detectable difference in the response of visual areas to Rembrandt and “school of Rembrandt” works of art. The key word in that sentence is “detectable”: fMRI remains a crude tool, and just because it can’t pinpoint a significant difference between groups (especially given these limited sample sizes) doesn’t mean there is none. That said, it’s not exactly surprising that such similar paintings would elicit virtually identical sensory responses. It takes years of training before critics can reliably discern real Rembrandt from copies. And even then there is often extensive disagreement, as the 1995 Metropolitan show demonstrates.
However, the scientists did locate a pattern of activity that appeared whenever a painting was deemed to be authentic, regardless of whether or not it was actually “real.” In such instances, subjects showed a spike in activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a chunk of brain just behind the eyes that is often associated with perceptions of reward, pleasure and monetary gain. (According to the scientists, this activation reflects “the increase in the perceived value of the artwork.”) Interestingly, there was no difference in orbitofrontal response when the stamp of authenticity was applied to a fake Rembrandt, as the brain area responded just as robustly. The quality of art seemed to be irrelevant.

What’s the difference between wanting to get to know a work of art, this-here-now, and wanting to know all there is to know? Sometimes its like going on a date. Do you really want to know all the juicy details of their past? If you knew all the mistakes they made beforehand would you ever be in a position to like them or forgive them? Aren’t some details irrelevant? Or the timing of the informations could be better or worse? Isn’t how we come to know often as important as what we come to know?

And aren’t some things better left unsaid? Can knowing too much sometimes actually destroy the possibility of further interest? If our interest ends prematurely what are the consequences for our incipient knowledge? Isn’t that first kiss sometimes something magical, and it eventually goes downhill from there? Sometimes? And if we put that in perspective will it sabotage things for us? If we are looking squarely at the hardships of a long term relationship would we have second thoughts about the next date? Isn’t our own passion often defeated by knowing too much? And do we generally call this an improvement? Is deeper knowing always better knowing?

I have picked up, moved, shaped,
and lightened myself of many tons of clay,
and those tons lifted, moved, and shaped me,
delivering me to this living-space
I wake and move about in,
space perhaps equal to that I have opened and enclosed
in plate, cup, bowl, jug, jar.
I am thankful no one ever
led me to the pit I’d help to make in Earth,
or showed me all the clay at once.
I’m grateful no one ever said, There.
That heap’s about a hundred fifty tons.
Go make yourself a life.
And oh, yes, here’s a drum of ink.
See what you can do with that.
I wouldn’t have known where to begin.

from, “Calling the Planet Home” by Jack Troy.

Maybe these questions are not interesting to others. All our questions face that hurdle. But then we need to ask if that’s the fault of the questions themselves or simply the potential difference between any two human beings. I, personally, like asking questions. Challenging my own articles of faith isn’t just a silly diversion, its important. To me, at least…. To each their own, right?

Is cricket better than baseball? Is Rugby better than soccer? Chess than checkers? Questions are like moves in different games. Sometimes it looks like we are playing the same game, or that the pieces match up, but it also turns out that different games use the same pieces and moves can look nearly identical and yet be undertaken for radically different purposes.

We often think we are getting at the things behind our words, that we are peeling back the layers of confusion to get at the real things. We imagine that the art is something beyond what we casually understand it to be. We hope for a better insight in the same way that science gives us insight by performing experiments and bringing technology to bear. As if we were peering closer at nature.

Most people can point to art if you ask them (gray areas notwithstanding), but what does that tell us? What are we trying to see? When we talk about ‘art’, are we even sure we are always talking about the same thing? Are we pointing out a natural category, primordial divisions in world? Something like kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species? Or atom, electron, nucleus? Or is it just a happy illusion of our language that so many things can all be referred to as ‘art’? And will the same questions penetrate equally in all directions of how that word gets used? Are the questions we use simply the choice between better and worse instruments?

Enough.

I know my head is starting to spin. By my count that’s 82 questions I just asked relating to how we see art. You tell me which were the better questions and which didn’t lead anywhere. It seems that if asking the right sort of question is the best way forward you won’t be getting anywhere if you are not asking questions. So, what are the things that matter to you? What are the things you would like to know about art? What are the questions you ask?

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

And keep asking those questions!

.

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts education, Beauty, Creativity, metacognition, Wittgenstein. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Asking ‘better’ questions about Art

  1. Here’s something related:

    25 Ways To Ask Your Kids “So how was school today?” Without Asking them “So how was school today?”
    August 27, 2014

    This year Simon is in 4th grade and Grace is in 1st grade and I find myself asking them every day after school, “So how was school today?”.

    And everyday I get an answer like “fine” or “good” which doesn’t tell me a whole lot.

    AND I WANT TO KNOW A WHOLE LOT!!!!

    Or at get at least a full sentence. So the other night I sat down and made a list of more engaging questions to ask about school. They aren’t perfect…but I do get at least complete sentences…and some have lead to some interesting conversations…and hilarious answers…and some insights into how my kids think and feel about school

    #1. What was the best thing that happened at school today? (What was the worst thing that happened at school today?)

    #2. Tell me something that made you laugh today.

    #3. If you could choose who would you like to sit by in class? (Who would you NOT want to sit by in class? Why?)

    #4. Where is the coolest place at the school?

    #5. Tell me a weird word that you heard today. (Or something weird that someone said.)

    #6. If I called your teacher tonight what would she tell me about you?

    #7. How did you help somebody today?

    #8. How did somebody help you today?

    #9. Tell me one thing that you learned today.

    #10. When were you the happiest today?

    #11. When were you bored today?

    #12. If an alien spaceship came to your class and beamed up someone who would you want them to take?

    #13. Who would you like to play with at recess that you’ve never played with before?

    #14. Tell me something good that happened today.

    #15. What word did your teacher say most today?

    #16. What do you think you should do/learn more of at school?

    #17. What do you think you should do/learn less of at school?

    #18. Who in your class do you think you could be nicer to?

    #19. Where do you play the most at recess?

    #20. Who is the funniest person in your class? Why is he/she so funny?

    #21. What was your favorite part of lunch?

    #22. If you got to be the teacher tomorrow what would you do?

    #23. Is there anyone in your class that needs a time out?

    #24. If you could switch seats with anyone in the class who would you trade with? Why?

    #25. Tell me about three different times you used your pencil today at school.

    *****

  2. As a commentary on the things that remain hidden and what gets revealed, this is funny precisely because of the bits that stay ‘under wraps’. “Knowing too much” would definitely defeat the humor and destroy the whole point. And isn’t art (sometimes at least) exactly that? That some things stay hidden? That all is not revealed? That there is mystery? That some questions are better off left unanswered? Don’t we deny art by occasionally knowing too much?

  3. From Brainpickings:

    ” There is no settling down without some settling for. There is no long-term relationship not just putting up with your partner’s flaws, but accepting them and then pretending they aren’t there. We like to call it in my house “paying the price of admission.”

    […]

    You can’t have a long-term relationship with someone unless you’re willing to identify the prices of admission you’re willing to pay — and the ones you’re not. But the ones you’re not — the list of things you’re not willing to put up with — you really have to be able to count [them] on one hand…

    People, when they’re young, have this idea… “There’s someone out there who’s perfect for me”… “The one.”

    “The one” does not fucking exist.

    “The one” is a lie. But the beautiful part of the lie is that it’s a lie you can tell yourself.

    Any long-term relationship that’s successful is really a myth that two people create together … and myths are built of lies, and there’s usually some kernel of truth…

    When you think about it, you meet somebody for the first time, and they’re not presenting their warts-and-all self to you — they’re presenting their idealized self to you, they’re leading with their best. And then, eventually, you’re farting in front of each other. Eventually, you get to see the person who is behind that facade of their best, and they get to see the person your facade, your lie-self — this lie that you presented to them about who you really are. And what’s beautiful about a long-term relationship, and what can be transformative about it, is that I pretend every day that my boyfriend is the lie that I met when I first met him. And he does that same favor to me — he pretends that I’m that better person than I actually am. Even though he knows I’m not. Even though I know he’s not. And we then are obligated to live up to the lies we told each other about who we are — we are then forced to be better people than we actually are, because it’s expected of us by each other.

    And you can, in a long-term relationship, really make your lie-self come true — if you’re smart, and you demand it of them, and you’re willing to give it to them… That’s the only way you become “the one” — it’s because somebody is willing to pretend you are. “The one” that they were waiting for, “the one” they wanted, their “one.” Because you’re not — nobody is. No two people are perfect for each other, ever, period — No two people are 100% sexually compatible, no two people are 100% emotionally compatible, no two people want the same things. And if you can’t reconcile yourself to that, you will have no relationships that last longer than two months.

    And you know what? It’s not going to be their fault — it’s going to be your fault.” —–Dan Savage

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