I so often felt awkward in my own body in Junior High School. The art teacher, Mr. Gold was a survivor of polio, and needed special crutches to assist him to walk across the room. He never seemed to communicate any self-counsciousness. And for that and many other reasons, his presence was reassuring to me.
He was a wonderful artist and a phenomenal teacher. We can’t explain everything that great teachers teach us. There are some practical things that I can name that Mr. Gold steered me towards. As we would draw whatever the subject of the morning was, he would circulate, lean into the table, and ask, “Is that what you see?”
He gently insisted that we become aware and be present. I cannot claim to know what art is, but right now I think it has to do with learning to be present. You have the subject, whether a scene, a person, or a representation of the abstract. And then you have the canvas, or the material with which you are representing what you see. Let’s look at that word: “Re-presenting.” To present again. The subject is presented to us and then we present it again. I think this is at least some aspect of what art is about.
We’ve developed terms that surround the activity of presenting again. One of these terms is accuracy. Accuracy in representation is based on the theory that the subject actually looks a given way. But there are many styles of presenting again and they each indicate a different response to Mr. Gold’s question.
The answer to the question isn’t the important thing. The asking is what matters. We can organize art into these categories. We can make a textbook, have an art history course, and therefore organize our knowledge. And after we’ve done this, we have the question, is that what you see?
I took my son to the MOMA when he was three. He would run up to a work of art and have an immediate emotional response to it. Sometimes he would linger for a moment, but often he would run to the next work. He was excited by the life in the art. He was responding to something. And I realized that, for years, I was trying to respond intellectually and had been muting that actual response. Proverbially, I heard Mr. Gold lean in and ask his question.
What you see isn’t just what you see, it’s what you feel, it’s what you try to think and try not to think. It’s the entire experience of life as you are seeing. It is the presence.
I don’t know if any instance of presenting again is meant or intended to present the experience. I think re-presentations are presentations unto themselves that are inspired by some initial seeing.
For a while I believed that realism was a problematic proposition. The idea that any form of representation, whether visual or literary, in dance or in music, is more real than another is premised on a reality filled with certainty and void of the humility that we don’t know what we don’t know. But realism is just a name for any kind of representing that attempts to render a presentation with certain features. For a while I believed that my own more impressionistic approach was the more real, more authentic one. This was an OK belief, but I was doing what I believed the realists were doing: falsely asserting the certitude and supreme validity of one approach over another.
I used to be in awe of the works of Salvador Dalí and MC Escher. I was introduced to their work through the social milieu of students at the high school of Art and Design, where I attended. I was taken by Dalí’s ability to present what he imagined and Escher’s ability to show us that what we think we see isn’t the only thing present.
But at the heart of this appreciation was my belief in the hierarchy of accuracy.
Both Escher and Dalí are masters at making the objects they present look unmistakably like those objects. The sceneries may be surreal in Dali’s work, but you know that you’re supposed to be looking at a dripping clock. In my mind, and this was reaffirmed by conversations with my peers, two things reigned in artistic expression: the ability to accurately present things and the vision to create your own scenes and images. This hierarchy had canceled out the appreciation of art that presented to us in what I believed to be less “realistic” ways.
As I have deepened my understanding of art, paradoxically I embrace how much I don’t understand about it. I’ve been trying to return to that immediate response that my son demonstrated when he was three.
Now I am drawn to the works of André Derain Derain and Alex Katz. Derain’s bold colors demonstrate to me a beautiful inner joy about the beauty of the world. When I look at one of Derain’s paintings, I feel like I’m asking him, “Is that what you see?” But I’m asking it from a place of awe, and, to some extent, from a place of shared seeing. Katz’s work, for me, balances so elegantly between cartoon and reality that I experience some sense of optical illusion, or perceptual questioning. Through his work, Katz is asking me Mr. Gold’s question.