the effect of art

i found myself thinking more about what art is, and what it meant to me. not conceptually or intellectually, but as an experience, a process, an aspect of breathing life.

i thought about this to clarify how to proceed and how to make sense of where i had been.

in my overeducated way (with undergraduate studies in comparative literature) i had been exposed to the major metaphors for art, and was aware of the current gallery and museum industry and contemporary writings on painting.

all of that seemed beside the point.

looking back on my own attempts to learn, i didn't feel the struggle to develop my skills was inconsequential to the way my paintings turned out, but central to it. the struggle with skill, the human mechanism of aspiration and perseverence, was one of the unseen essential aspects of painting, like the unnoticed varnish on an oil painting that makes the whole image glow.

we want our paintings to be about something — the landscape, the face, the kitty in the rusty pail — but what they show is the effort of an individual to make sense of the world.

the gift images were the basic furnishings of art. my painting was marked at every point by images that i hadn't known how to see — watercolor skies, impossible couches, enormous fountains, rainbow rose trees. my involvement with art had opened me to a new experience of seeing the world.

this seeing was infused with imagination, which does not report reality but sees through it. in my experience, painting is an activity that in the process of creating one thing (a painted image) creates something more important: the imaginative capability.

these indirect effects of painting seem very similar to the indirect effects of physical exercise, which directly creates physical strength and vigor but indirectly improves resistance to disease, relaxation and mental clarity.

fundamentally, the practice of art requires seeing with imaginative attention. we must extract the essential visual code from the motif, and we must enact the technical procedures to put the code on paper. the value in art lies in the way the development of the visual imagination and the manual making of images are connected. i embrace this complex process in a single phrase: teaching myself to see.

we are visual creatures. our vision serves many psychological functions and relies on most of our mental capabilities. it affects our thinking with much more power that language does. think of how you visualize the route to a new destination, or the solution to a mechanical puzzle, or your interpretation of your past, or the act of asking someone for a favor. visual imagination is engaged in all these mental activities.

the painter's continuous exercise nurtures the health of our imaginative vision, and this in turn improves other psychological capabilities such as intuition, insight, esthetic judgment and sense of beauty.

most people experience art as a passive viewer: they just look at the painting or photograph and react. the image dictates its own terms; the icon enters the viewer's imagination in the clothing of a collective symbol.

these passive experiences actually restrict the viewer's imagination, because now the artist's image springs to mind before individual imagination can take effect. so now the viewer's imagination must be stimulated in other ways, primarily from personal experiences. presented to the group, art is totalitarian, authoritarian: it links visual symbols to established meanings and reinforces the established meanings. religious and administrative institutions have rediscovered this totalitarian resource many times in human history.

seen by the individual, as an individual experience without preconceptions, art can engage and challenge the imagination, and partly recreate for the viewer the artist's imaginative process. but without awareness of the manual skill required to create the image, art seems to preach truth confirmed rather than truth as it is discovered.

this is the most basic dichotomy in art: art that affirms preconceptions and dogma, versus art that reveals truth in the painful process of discovery.

artists actively make images from an imaginative source they do not understand; they glimpse and then set down images that have a life of their own. they persevere in their artistic discipline so that they can learn the skills and master the materials necessary to do the setting down as effectively as possible

all artists realize that they do not really understand how that setting down gets done. art is discovery, not repetition. if imagination is fused to skill then paintings cannot be recreated, they cannot be done a second time, the second painting is always different from the first. at the heart of painting is the subjectivity of it — the question why am i able to do this? — which the artist cannot answer. this is what the passive viewer of a visual image is unable to see. the viewer's blindness to the process of painting makes them susceptible to the illusion of painting as a fixed truth.

artists look beyond the collective images of institutions because they look fresh at the way the world affects their imagination. and this happens primarily because they must focus attention for long periods on the materials and tools available for analyzing and visually reproducing the world.

it is the struggle with painting materials that prevents the artist from simply parroting received truths.

the artist's imagination and methods lead him to observe the world in much the same way scientists and hunters do — with curiosity and lack of prejudice — and through this intense looking at the world artists see things that the rest of us, who glance and hustle our way through life, never notice.

they observe their own paintings and tools as they work, and learn to connect imagination to movement, in the same way we connect ideas to speech.

the visual activity of investigating the world and guiding an artistic process, because it is so much more effortful than passive viewing, stimulates the inner vision. visual imagination becomes stronger, more sensitive, more autonomous. (this was, for example, why i began to see watercolor skies.)

this visual imagination is in turn involved in many other psychological processes, so its growth also strengthens intuition, insight, memory and judgment, which need visualization to function effectively.

visual imagination is the heart of our inner life, and by making that heart stronger in the pursuit of gift images, our entire inner life becomes healthier.

it seems commonplace that the stomach can reach into the imagination and bring the image of a milkshake to mind, or disease can evoke depression, or hormones can stimulate sexual fantasies. in the artistically stimulated, a spiritual thirst can reach into the visual imagination and bring unexpected, healing, magical images — such as an enormous fountain — to mind.

images start to bump into us from outside because they are quickly pulled toward us from the inside, thanks to the strengthened and more active function of the visual imagination.

as the visual imagination is strengthened, and increases its control of the methods for creating artistic images, the images reveal the artist's inner nature. even though no human face or voice is present, we seem to be in the presence of a life that is both inside and outside us. we come face to face with our individual spirit, as we discover it in the process of living our individual life.

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