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.