Making and Interpreting Art

Bevan Ramsay,
Bevan Ramsay, “POW,” Harmonia Hindi (2012): digital print on silk satin scarf with pique hem

The importance of perception, when it comes to ‘getting’ art (painting, music, even writing), is often neglected, it seems to me. People want explanations. To explain a perception is possible, but it is not the same as perceiving (let alone learning to shift one’s perspective in the moment to see as one did not see before).

To me it seems that great artists are intuitively playing with perception (their own and that of others) all the time, adjusting and shifting and looking for new ways of perceiving the same thing or sort of thing. Explanations can be offered, of course–from the historical (“he was a member of the Surrealist school …”) to the biological (“he was a male naturally fascinated with visual erotica …”), but they are always hollow at some point. To really ‘get’ some painting or piece of music, you have to weave it into a series of experiences. You can try (as the best teachers do) to see what kind of tapestry the artist was weaving of his own life as he produced whatever work you are studying, but if you don’t experience it for yourself, you will never really ‘know’ what you are talking about when you mention it. The art is part of your life, too. It tells you things. You must notice these things. You must look at your own tapestry.

So many students come to me ‘broken’ in the sense that they have learned to hide from me their voice, their perception of things we study. It is not that they don’t have perceptions or perspective, but that they have learned to avoid sharing too much (casting pearls before swine is the biblical metaphor, not inept). It is sometimes wise to avoid sharing, of course, but at some point we all need to share. If we are really unfortunate, a bad experience growing up can lead to a lifetime of squelching one’s own perceptions–covering them over with dead explanations. The saddest people here, in my experience, are not students per se, but professors–critics who have crushed and tormented and denied their own creative genius to become ‘expert’ judges of everyone else’s. Often they appear completely unaware, on a rational or conscious level, that their explanation of art is denigrating (and angry, and painful, not to mention often wrong). They will usually claim to love whatever it is that they are destroying, but theirs is the love of the vindictive little boy who collects pretty butterflies to pin upon small cards–with neat little labels, in Latin. A beautiful, terrible picture of death.

—Joseph Gresham Miller

About kalekotxakur

Joseph Gresham Miller grew up in the southern United States, where his parents provided a well-stocked library and a large garden in lieu of school. As a young man, he left the States for two years to live in northern Spain, where he worked as an LDS Mormon missionary (basically an unpaid intern in corporate sales). After this adventure he went to school for more than a decade to acquire a doctorate in classical studies. Along the way, he met a very nice girl in Latin class, and they had two boys. Today, he and his family live in the mountain West. While his wife works full-time in academia, he adjuncts at local universities, writes, and takes care of the kids. He is interested in finding practical applications for more or less defunct ancient philosophies (especially Cynicism, Skepticism, and Stoicism) in modern life.

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