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.
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.