I’m Beginning to See

Edgar Degas has always been one of my favorite artists. Although I don’t have a strong background in art or art history, I became familiar with Degas as a young dancer many, many years ago. I’ve previously shared many of my thoughts — and a few of his inspiring quotes — along with links for more information about the artist.

Motion in Art – Wise Words from Degas

Today I’m revisiting one of his best-known quotes, the one that tells us that art isn’t so much what we see, but what we make others see. After six years now of learning to draw, reading about art, studying art history, and becoming part of the art community, I think I’m beginning to understand these words. I’ve marveled in the past at how I’ve learned to see the world differently as an artist. I’m much more attuned to colors, more aware of lights and shadows, more interested in all the natural beauty I see.

I’ve learned, too, to look at art itself differently. Of course I look at technical aspects, noting brushstrokes the artist has used, thinking about the warmth or coolness of the palette, trying to figure out how the artist has created certain effects.

But mostly I’ve learned to see art in terms of personal experience, to see by the process of feeling, to look at a work of art and allow myself to get lost in thoughts, memories, and my own remembrances of things past.

And here is what I’m now beginning to see: Because we each have different thoughts and feelings, because we each have different lives with different memories, because we each have different emotional natures, we will never see art exactly the same.

Yes, I know. That’s a simple thought. It’s obvious. But at the same time, it was a profound realization for me as I put this all in the context of what art really is. It’s not merely a matter of personal taste or personal preference. It goes much deeper than that. Our reaction to any piece of art comes from a place inside of us where our thoughts and feelings live.

We might agree that a painting is lovely. We might agree that we like — or dislike — the colors of a work of art. We might even agree that a painting has a playful spirit or a reflective quality, or that certain symbolic elements are present.

But we can never agree on what a particular painting means, because the meaning is personal to each of us. If I like a painting and you don’t — Egon Schiele comes to mind – that doesn’t mean that I’m right and you’re wrong or vice versa. It means we each have different ideas we associate with the work. We each interpret it according to highly personal standards based upon our life experiences.

This is why I occasionally post a painting that I don’t like — one I consider a failed work — yet find that others see it differently. Others like the work; others call it art even though I don’t. This explains, too, why I sometimes have landscapes I’ve painted that are very meaningful to me, yet others pass them by with a nod and a shrug.

Of course, there are still some certain standards by which art is judged, such as academic considerations. Is a painting or drawing well composed? Is there a strong focal point? Are the colors harmonious? These are essentially technical considerations, and while they are of the utmost important (at least in the eyes of many show judges) they are only part of the art story.

Since I began this post with thoughts of Degas, let me share one of his paintings.

What do you see in this? More to the point, what memories does it evoke? What thoughts come to mind as you view this painting?

I like this painting for reasons beyond the technical or academic elements. Why? Because of pleasant experiences in my past. I recall seeing lovely vases of flowers on display in places I’ve visited, and this makes me think of my own love for fresh flowers in my home. I like the lady here, too, because she reminds me of a friend. Seeing her makes me smile. Other thoughts come to mind, as well. This painting allows me to feel that I’m stepping back in time, going back to a different era. As a lover of history, I like this opportunity to visit the past and think about how different life was in another time and place.

The painting arouses a bit of curiosity, too. Where, precisely, is she? Is she waiting for someone? What is she thinking? I like that slight hint of mystery there. It’s an opportunity for us — once again — to draw upon our own experiences, to see the painting in a very personal way, to become part of the creative process and add touches of our own narrative to this work of art.

So, again, I know that this all probably sounds simple and obvious, yet the true meaning of what we “make others see” has deepened now for me. In the past, I’ve struggled to define what “art” is supposed to be, and then I’ve struggled even more to measure up to those rigid standards.

Now, I’m beginning to see the truth. There are no standards by which art can truly be judged. Yes, the academics of art are important, but there’s so much more. Our role as artists, I believe, is to provide opportunities for others to see themselves and their lives in our work, to invite others into our paintings where their memories can bring the art alive, where their own thoughts and feelings determine what they see and whether or not they choose to call it art.

13 Comments

  1. Defining “art” is a constantly moving target, which rapidly changes according to how society as a whole perceives it. According to one of my design school professors, art is *anything* created by an artist, with the example he offered up of Duchamp’s avant-garde *Fountain* (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_(Duchamp)) – which leaves art interpretation wide-open for pretty much anything.

    I read many years ago that an “artist” took a sledgehammer to a piano and called it performance art. And from my own experience in design school, I learned that defining art can take some really wild turns and can go into some really dark places – some of which I never care to see with my own eyes again. One rather tame example of this is the surreal NSFW shock film by Salvador Dalí, called *An Andalusian Dog* (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Un_Chien_Andalou). PLEASE NOTE: Do NOT watch this film if you are easily shocked or squeamish, due to extreme nudity and gore.

    I know that what I personally define as “art” is a lot narrower than what I see offered up as art, and I don’t even know how to define some of what is described as art these days.

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    1. It’s a fascinating topic, and as you’ve pointed out, it’s a moving target. Great way to express it! I’ve wrestled with the “anything an artist creates is art” idea, and I can’t agree with it. I’ve seen too many works of art that I simply can’t consider art in any sense, not only Duchamp and his urinal, but the “poop in a box” art, the “banana on the wall” art, and the “unmade bed” art. Sure, we can find something interesting, creative, and maybe even artistic in these things, but overall, they each fall far short of what I consider to be art. But who am I to say what is or isn’t? I can only judge art on my own terms, by my own standards, not only be what I like or dislike, but by how I respond to the work at a deeper level. I have favorable responses to art from a variety of styles and genres. Some I like because I feel it is beautiful. Some art I like because of the emotions it brings out for me. Some I like because of the style.

      I’m not into the “dark arts”, so I think I’ll pass on the Andalusian Dog. I’ve read a lot, too, about Marina Abramovic and her “Spirit Cooking” performance art, much of which has been caught up and spun off into wild conspiracy theories, and I definitely don’t want to go there. I want to say that everyone is entitled to their own opinions and if people like that sort of art, fine, let them attend performances and let them purchase whatever works they want to put on their walls. I don’t have to like it.

      Maybe it helps us if we consider the differences between “creativity” and “art”. My thought is that a piece can be creative without being art, and at the same time, I think art requires creativity in some degree. So we can have creativity without art, but not art without creativity. Does that make sense?

      And then we come to the question as to how we define creativity! So, we’ve replaced one moving target with another, and we’re not likely to ever hit either one.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Agreed on all counts.

        You can read the link I included about “Andalusian Dog”; it just goes to the Wikipedia entry about the film, and the text gives a description that is sufficient for understanding the film without actually seeing it.

        I’m in the same boat as you – I know what I like and what I don’t. I too wrestle with the same “art versus creativity” quandary. Some work I refuse to even recognize as creative, because it’s not – some is derivative, some is outright plagiarism, and some is just something the “artist” throws at the wall to see if it’ll stick.

        Yeesh, I need some cute kitten eye bleach after looking up Marina Abramovic!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for letting me know about the link. I will follow it and read about The Andalusian Dog. For me, a large part of “art” and “creativity” involves expression. As a newbie in the world of drawing and painting, a lot of my early work was nothing more than following along as an online instructor demonstrated drawing techniques. There was no real “personal expression” involved, yet I do consider some of those early works as “art” simply because they exceeded my expectations. I never thought I could learn to draw. Most, though, I wouldn’t really call “art” simply because the subjects weren’t personal to me. On the other hand, there are many times when I feel I have “something to say” and I try, yet the resulting work is disappointing and I can’t see it as “art”. For me, art is successful when I can bring both elements together, when I can complete a drawing or painting that (in my estimation) shows both some level of artistic skill and also has emotional meaning. I guess in some ways, I also use that as a standard by which I measure when I look at a work of art. If I know the story behind the art and can understand what the artist was saying, that helps me see it more as art, but even there, I have my limits. Maybe it’s important that I agree with the artist at some level.

        Yeah, sorry to have subjected you to Abramovic. Is it art? I’ll let you decide for yourself. Now, go find some cute kitten pictures. 🙂

        https://theawesomedaily.com/46-cute-cats-that-are-so-adorable-they-are-taking-over-the-internet/

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Haha – love the kittens!

        Abramovic – I’m sure – produces what some would call art, but I’m not one of them.

        As far as drawing and painting are concerned, practice makes perfect. I know that it sounds stupid and cliché, but it’s the truth. It was a hard lesson learned in design school, from professors that knew what they were teaching.

        I attended the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, Virginia – considered by many to be one of the finest public art schools on the east coast. They have – at last count – some 34 programs to an undergraduate degree (mine was in Communication Art [commercial design] with a strong emphasis on Photography). However, anyone wishing to attend their School of the Arts is required to go through their Art Foundation Program (AFO) for their freshman year – which exposes you to pretty much everything… fine art drawing and painting, art history, design elements, conceptual art, commercial art, etc. It’s a hard core jump into the deep end of the art world, to jolt you out of whatever preconceived notions you may have about art and to shake you out of any bad art habits you’ve picked up prior to arriving there.

        One of the ways they worked to break us of bad habits during our freshman year was to assign impossible amounts of art homework – each and every professor. One would assign self-portraits… 40 of them… due by the next class period, which was usually within two days. Another would assign an 8 foot by 6 foot completed acrylic painting, also due within two days. And another would come up with yet another big assignment due within two days – and on and on it went. The only way that you could complete the assignments was to work extremely fast, essentially breaking yourself of learned bad habits in order to fulfill the demands of the instructors.

        Prior to attending VCU, my bad habit was that I couldn’t draw people – period. By the end of my freshman year, I could do so with ease – in pencil, pen and ink, charcoal, and pastels. And I could do so quickly or slowly.

        I only knew one student – a guy from Brooklyn who drew caricatures and idolized Sylvester Stallone – who could not unlearn his own bad art habits. No matter what, all of his work looked like an over-the-top caricature you would buy from an artist on a boardwalk or in the midway at a county fair. Needless to say, he failed out of the program.

        My point in this long-winded reply is this: learning how to draw and paint is simply fine tuning your eye and hand coordination… the more you do it, the easier it comes. Draw on cheap newsprint and limit your drawings to 5-minutes apiece. Do the same with your paintings. When you start getting some nice results with 5-minute blocks of time, begin extending the time blocks – until you reach whatever time block you’re comfortable working with… 60-minutes, two days, a month, whatever.

        At some point with all of these exercises, you’ll begin to create “art” that you’ll be pleased with. Then you can begin to think about specific styles to pursue.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Interesting! The rigorous training sounds crazy, yet I can see how it would work to break someone out of old habits. Yes, I agree that it is very much about practice. I am living proof that anyone can learn to draw if they are willing to put in the time and effort. It might never be easy for me, but continued practice will help me improve.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I wrote a reply… but I’m not sure if it actually posted as a reply or as a separate comment. So, please see my other comment and know that the thoughts were directed to you in response to your comments. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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