I’ve never been “trained” in art. I went to many a museum with no idea how to look at the pieces, what to do, or where to put my hands.
Raised in Columbus, Ohio, my family eschewed art for sports and museums for sunsets over the lake. My childhood was encased in the nature and nurture of Midwest values, Midwest landscapes. Though beautiful and innately creative, it certainly didn’t help me while touring Europe’s most prestigious museums.
I wasn’t “trained.” I went anyway. As a result I slowly began to grow an appreciation for museum going. I began to grow a preference, to develop an understanding of layout and gallery design and artistic development. I began to seek out exhibits. I began to like art, educated or not.
Recently, at a Van Gogh exhibit showing at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, I stood in front of The Green Vineyard, a rather ignored piece by the master painter compared to its cousin, The Red Vineyard.
It was a rainy night in Milan. I had convinced Marco to stay in the city after work before making the long commute back home so that we could catch the Van Gogh exhibit during its last few days there. We drifted through the gallery hand in hand, listening to our shared audio guide and patiently waiting for the school group to pass. The Green Vineyard was in the final room of the exhibit, tucked away among other similar stroke style paintings, a part of the artist’s later work.
As is so characteristic of Van Gogh, the painting was filled with movement. It was an outdoor scene of women strolling through a field. The sky was tumultuous and the women struggled with their sun umbrellas, the wind pulling them this way and that. Besides this, it seemed to be the perfect weather for a stroll, the sky was clear blue, calm, reassuring. The happy colors and banality of a stroll was overwhelmed by the force field of energy that came from the field of vines, a vineyard perhaps. The vines were painted as if from an up-close perspective, the people and field beyond as if from a distant viewpoint. Each chaotic green twisted around another while strong brown vines tied them all together, until it all simply disappeared into a gray nothingness toward the foreground of the painting. So much detail, dissolved to nothing.
At the time I had no words for what I felt. I wasn’t dissecting the painting. I wasn’t searching for meaning. Though now I can say that for me it so clearly represented the struggles of life. The minute details holding up as good of a façade as we can until it gives way to nothingness, until it’s proven insignificant by death. I can say that it instilled in me a strange feeling of anxiety, strange because it came with such a visually appealing scene. I still haven’t searched the background of this painting, because it doesn’t matter. At the time my neurons began to fire. I was sparking. The painting made me feel – what, I don’t know – and I knew that that’s all it had to do. Make me feel, with no other homework required.
Art is about emotion. Good art makes us feel. Great art shows us that we’re not alone.
As a girl I escaped for hours into the worlds of my books. I used my library card along with my mother’s in order to bring home the amount of books necessary to hold me over until we returned two weeks later. I read to escape my unstable home life. I read to be the heroine of each new adventure. I read to learn, to feel, to see other possibilities. Most of all, I read to find a connection, to find a truth. It doesn’t have to be life altering – even a grain of truth is powerful enough to move us. Sometimes it’s powerful enough to save us.
Most writers already know this, but perhaps we see it most clearly from Hemingway’s most famous quote: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
I read for hundreds of reasons, but what I was really searching for were those found moments of truth that could validate me as a human being, that one scene or line or word that described something I thought only I had noticed, felt or done. It could be something as small as a nervous tick, as large as a life philosophy. Whatever it was, if it was in the book it meant that someone else in the world had experienced it. It meant that I wasn’t alone.
And I’m not the only one. For this is why we seek out art. We want to know we’re not alone.
I saw this most recently in the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The book follows the life of protagonist Theo Decker and his obsessive possession over a small painting that he associates with the day his mother died. The book follows his life artfully and follows art that is full of life. It’s about our constant quest for even the tiniest clue that shows us we’re not alone. It’s about the art around us, whatever it may be, that somehow reaches us, that says “psst, hey you.”
In the end Theo muses on art and humanity’s constant search for beauty. His semi-foster parent, Hobie, says this about the subject:
“Great paintings––people flock to see them, they draw crowds, they’re reproduced endlessly on coffee mugs and mouse pads and anything-you-like. And, I count myself in the following, you can have a lifetime of perfectly sincere museum-going where you traipse around enjoying everything and then go out and have some lunch. But if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.”
We can study art manuals, learn the names, the histories, of the most popular art works in the world, but if you ask me that’s not the point of art. The point is this. Psst, you. Yes you. Each piece will mean something different to each person. Each analysis will feel dry compared to our own shared emotion.
Continuing from The Goldfinch:
“You see one painting, I see another, the art book puts it at another remove still, the lady buying the greeting card at the museum gift shop sees something else entire, and that’s not even to mention the people separated from us by time––four hundred years before us, four hundred years after we’re gone–it’ll never strike anybody the same way and the great majority of people it’ll never strike in any deep way at all but––a really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular. Yours, yours. I was painted for you.”
It’s our powerful, if brief, connection: ‘This painting is my gift. It was painted only for people like me. The painter wasn’t alone and neither am I.’ ‘This book was written directly for me. It understands me. I am understood.’
I’m no longer worried about what to do with my hands in a museum. I no longer tour galleries with the silent echo of insecurity resonating in my ears. I know that I am one person among the entire millennia of humanity who just wants to feel connected in all the places I wasn’t sure fit.
That’s why art is important. That’s why we should connect to art. Why we gravitate toward it. That’s what art can give us – a glimpse of truth. A fragment of unanimity.
Psst, you. Yes. You.