If art isn’t meant to fit within the clearly-established boundaries of a well-regulated life, then how exactly do we interact with it? How do we ‘experience’ it? If art doesn’t have an explicitly pedagogical or pragmatic purpose, why does it exist?
A common approach has been to verify the artist’s worldview—if you understand the way that Donatello viewed the world, you’ll probably be better able to understand his work. This method has its merits—if you know that Ernest Hemingway was passionate about truth and honesty in writing, it’s fairly certain that you’ll have a deeper understanding of A Farewell To Arms, and if you can appreciate Jane Austen’s critique of social mores in Regency England, you’ll be less likely to dismiss her novels as chick lit.
But there’s a problem with that approach—it focuses the viewer’s (or the reader’s) attention on the artist, and not the art itself. Certainly, the artist himself is present (in some fashion) in the work, but that doesn’t mean that the work is absolutely and exclusively self-referential. As Americans, we have a very strong sense of the pragmatic, and we get very uneasy if what we’re looking at isn’t easily classified. So, if we can’t make sense of the object, we’ll look to its author for answers. This can be helpful—the author, after all, knows more about it than the observer—but we must remember that when it comes to art (be it painting, sculpture, or film) the author wants us to interact with the object. It’s the painting that’s speaking; not the artist, and since its language is that of color, form, light and shadow, we must be prepared to listen a little harder and focus a little longer if we want to hear what it’s saying.
In this interview, Dr. Siedell discusses the role of the Christian art critic, the way to love our neighbor, and how to learn about art.
P.S. For those of our friends who haven’t ready access to a museum, we’ve picked out a pretty great book to get you started, which Dr. Siedell has kindly reviewed for us—we’ll be posting it soon, so stay tuned!