Category Archives: On Viewing

New York On Viewing

Freelancers & Farm Animals

Lydia by Hope Gangloff

Lydia by Hope Gangloff by Hope Gangloff

I have not posted here for almost two months. This has not been for a lack of art viewing, but perhaps the opposite: the sheer volume of visual information I ingested in New York temporarily overwhelmed my mind’s receptors. I was exposed to a whole mess of contemplative puzzles that are still milling around my brain, waiting to be carefully extracted and examined. So while my analytic brain is recovering, I want to joyously wallow in the sensory pleasure of some pretty and brooding paintings.

That is not to say that Hope Gangloff‘s paintings are unintelligent–they are eloquent and articulate portraits of not just the individuals they portray but of a particular slice of life in the northeast that is furnished with outdoor showers and Adirondack chairs, and populated by freelancers and farm animals–but unlike much contemporary art, they require no further narrative or explanation. The pleasure in these paintings is immediate and unfolding.

Study of Olga Alexandrovskaya by Hope Gangloff

Study of Olga Alexandrovskaya by Hope Gangloff

Hope’s paintings are a little too hip–her subjects are beautiful thirty-somethings, living in rustic Americana, surrounded by delicate patterns and vintage clothing–but I don’t begrudge them that. The paint sings and pulses on her canvases. She creates whole individuals, teasing out their quirks and their inner life, noticing the little details that make a moment or a person specific.

According to the New York Times article, Why Music Makes Our Brain Sing, when listening to music our brain anticipates chords and climaxes based on our previous musical experiences. This sense of anticipation adds to the pleasure of listening, and our brain rewards us further for recognizing patterns and making accurate predictions. Is a similar mechanism at play when we view paintings…Is the brain rewarding us for successfully building a cohesive image out of a field of abstracts dabs? Is our mind so in love with patterns that the mere presence of a well painted stripped skirt sets off reward systems? I imagine that there must be an evolutionary advantage to being able to look at a human and hypothesize on their interior state of being, but why the hypnotic pleasure of staring at blue and pink snow?

I will research the neuroscience of  visual pleasure another day. For now, I just want to enjoy it.

May-December Romance

May-December Romance by Hope Gangloff


Art Books On Viewing

A Beautiful Thought Machine: Some Notes on Art Viewing


Written in 1936, A life of One’s Own by Joanna Fields is a lovely, introspective piece of nonfiction, in which the author tries to observe the workings of her own mind so as to better understand herself and what will make her happy. In one passage she reflects upon the effects of passive thought processes, noting that it is when she stops trying to have meaningful, important or useful thoughts that her mind becomes open to aesthetic experiences. She cites an instance in an art museum, coming upon a Cezanne still-life.

Being tired, restless, and distracted by the stream of bored Sunday afternoon sightseers drifting through the galleries, I simply sat and looked, too inert to remember whether I ought to like it or not. Slowly then I became aware that something was pulling me out of my vacant stare and the colors were coming alive. Gradually a great delight filled me…

Rather than checking the Cezanne off the list of things one should have seen, or focusing so intently on it that she starts to doubt her own opinions, her mind let’s go. Her sentiments reminded me of my jetlagged stroll through the Centre Pompidou, or my state of relaxed engagement drifting through Hockney’s A Bigger Picture. Though many philosophers have tackled the question of aesthetic experience, rarely have I read a clearer—or more honest–description of a viewer’s struggle to appreciate a work of art. The idea that there is something specific in a particular piece that one “ought” to like, sometimes gets in the way of actually experiencing it.

What Fields calls passivity is similar to what Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls flow, a state of brain function where one is fully and unselfconsciously engaged in an activity. In his book on the topic,  Csikszentmihaly often uses artistic production as an example of flow because it takes a high level of skill and concentration, but he only lightly touches on how art can produce flow in the viewer. When he does mention it, he goes into more depth discussing the response of specialists. As one arts professional puts it:

[Works of art] that I personally respond to…have behind them a lot of conceptual, political and intellectual activity…the visual representations are really signposts to this beautiful machine that has been constructed, unique on the earth, and is not just a rehashing of visual elements, but is really a new thought machine…”

I love this description of successful art as a thought machine that generates ideas in the viewer. However, for the untrained viewer of visual art, to whom the mixture of historical, technical and theoretical concerns in a contemporary art piece may not be apparent, the thought of “I don’t get it” can shut down the possibility for a receptive enjoyment and for playful thought processes.

I am not advocating for the making of simpler art that will be easily accessible to a broader public–different art appeals to different audiences–but I do think it is worthwhile to consider how people experience visual artworks. The receptive and delighted viewing described by Fields is a state which can be achieved through avenues other than jetlag and exhaustion, and a thought machine can generate ideas in anyone’s head. But those processes need to be discussed and cultivated if we want to build a society which values art viewing for its own sake.

Fields, J. (1936. Reprint published 1981). A Life of One’s Own. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: HarperCollins.