Art, Intuition, and "Understanding"

A talk given by John Adams Griefen at the Art Students League, September 1999

I am pleased to speak here tonight because I've enjoyed teaching here occasionally since 1969 and because I am grateful for the consistency the League offers in the midst of an often depressing and aimless art world.

I feel that it is important to clear up certain misconceptions about art because I believe that they get in the way of our understanding of art's very fabric and have led to some aberrations in the art of today and the understanding of art in general.

Hearing the following repeated over the years tells me that people have a problem with modern art:

      "I don't understand it."
      "Can you explain it?" and
      "I know you think it is good, but why?"

The problem, of course, is that one cannot understand art, explain art, or say why it is good or bad. Let me repeat: art cannot be "understood". Our familiarity with art can be broadened and enhanced by art history and good writing on esthetics, but this has nothing to do with and bears no relation to direct experience with the work. Art must be experienced intuitively.

It must make one react, because without reaction there is no experience.

When someone says "I don't understand" he or she is either blocking the reaction or just not getting it. People are not used to accepting a powerful intuitive experience per se, but this is the only way to experience art. Esthetic intuition is the way we experience art. It is not rational. It is direct and unedited and personal. Many great works of art have content that can be political and social and have great importance, but these are content, not experience.

When someone asks "Can you explain it?" the answer is no. But just because something cannot be explained does not mean that there is no esthetic value there. If everything was the same quality there would be no art museums, only natural and social history museums.

But, we might ask, how can artistic experience determine qualitative differences if that experience is intuitive and non rational and unproveable? Is some experience "more valid" than other experience? Yes, it seems so. Some people also seem have a natural inclination toward art and taste and look harder and longer and better. At least, this is what history tells us. The long-term consensus of lookers at art, in my experience, have made museum repositories of wonderful things and have excluded the much greater number of lesser things.

I believe art is important to life. Love, kindness, peace and health are more important than art, but art is important. Art can carry over time and space and can unite human feeling across time.

For example, prehistoric cave paintings and early Chinese bronzes.

If we saw a cave artist painting on a building today we would probably put him in jail, but the art he put on the walls and ceilings of his caves comes across to us immediately over tens of thousands of years. It is beautiful and moving beyond whatever cultural significance it may have had in whatever culture the cave man had. It must, because we have little idea what that culture was anyway.

Chinese bronzes also speak powerfully from a culture I know very little about; it is far away in space and time but the bronzes are direct and immediate and need no baggage. It is not from knowledge that we feel the power of this art, it is by way of esthetic experience. There is no need for intellectual understanding.

When people try to "understand" or "have art explained" there is room for a kind of fraud that undermines what art really is there for and what it has for us. If people believe that art can be explained to them they can be talked into anything. Intuition by its very nature has no defense against rational argument. You can use the very same arguments for a good work of art as for a bad work of art. Find an exposition of a work you like and then apply it to a similar work of the same origin that you don't like. The expositions are often equally applicable.

Even good writing about art enhances the art only after you have a free and honest experience of the art. If you don't "get it" don't worry about it. Go look at it again. My friend, the critic Clement Greenberg, gave me but one definite "rule" in the thirty years I knew him: "go look again". I got the idea of "getting it " from him. He said, "If you don't get Shakespeare you don't get English literature".

"Understanding" a work of art is a peculiarly 20th Century problem. In the past the esthetic component of art was taken for granted and experienced without much notice. A painting of a crucifix in the 17th century had a strong religious message and its esthetic experience just happened. But when Varsari and others wrote about art in the Renaissance they wrote about the esthetic quality of the art, not the exposition of the subject matter, and that was what made the difference when choices were made.

Thinking about pure esthetics goes back at least to Immanuel Kant and was talked about by writers like Flaubert in the 19th century. But it was not until the mid twentieth century, largely because of abstraction, that the art world and the public began to be faced with "pure" esthetics -- the "artness" of art. Art writers searched to "understand" and "interpret" art. Abstract art left them empty. Eventually they embraced art they could talk about at the expense of art they couldn't. I'm not saying there isn't good art in any style or ism, but a style is not good because it can be talked about. Too often the talk itself becomes the justification for the art. The public is pleased that it is all being explained to them but they confuse the explanation with the art itself, thereby forcing the art to become an illustration for the explanation.

Meanwhile difficult and unexplainable abstract art and writing about it (not explanations of it) have been historified and locked safely into the past. I am not trying to promote abstract art; what I am talking about applies to all good art. We are lucky enough to be living in a time when we are able to experience all art with new power and direct feeling because of our recent consciousness of direct intuitive experience. This is why I find it so tragic that at a time like this so much of the art world denies the exhilarating direct experience of art in favor of the dull comfort of familiarity, easy explanation and "understanding".

Can it be that the very power of great art makes us retreat from it?

Thank you.

Posted June 29, 2001

© John Adams Griefen, 1999-2002

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