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The Paradox of Visual Art

December 7th, 2017

The Paradox of Visual Art

According to Google, the word "paradox" may be defined as: "a situation, person, or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities."

In my opinion, the experience of visual art is a paradox, particularly when the art is displayed where we live and work.

Here's my notion in a nutshell: We miss visual art when it is absent from an interior space, but we quickly ignore the art when it is present.

For now, the term "visual art" should be understood as broadly as possible. This concept would include just about anything that could be displayed: paintings, drawings, photographs, clippings from an old magazine, craft products; in other words: Any intentionally-selected visual stimulus.

I started to think about this paradox when I visited a doctor's office not too long ago. While sitting in his waiting room, I noticed something strange about the space: The walls had nothing on them, and there was no window to the outside world. This was simply an unadorned space, meant to be temporarily occupied by patients waiting to see the doctor.

There was something incredibly alienating about the space. It wasn't ugly; it was just cold.

As I sat there, feeling trapped by those four blank walls, I had a sudden, deep appreciation for artwork, and the people who make it.

Art humanizes the space. Period.

All art does that. Good art, bad art, kid's art -- whatever. This includes any object that has been selected for contemplation and evaluation. A non-random visual stimulus inevitably warms the interior space.

So, here is premise #1: Consciously or not, most people want what I will call an "adorned interior". Think about what you do when you move into a new space: In fairly short order, you will probably ornament the physical environment with some kind of picture, diploma, calendar, sculpture, etc.

Now, for premise #2: Even though we want and need art, we ignore it most of the time.

By its very nature, artwork doesn't change. It has novelty when it is first experienced, and then... not so much.

Is this a problem? Well, no and yes. It can be comforting and pleasurable to re-encounter a familiar work of art. On the other hand, once experienced, the art will no longer be new to us, and we humans are seekers of novelty.

Let's say that you're an artist, and you give me a painting for my birthday. You will expect me to look at it and admire it for a minute or two, and that will do for the present moment. After that, you hope that I will like the work enough to look at it occasionally and admire its qualities.

But what would you think if I kept looking at it for thirty minutes? Or for an hour, or even many hours at a time, without ever taking a break? That would be abnormal, wouldn't it? You would think that something is wrong because you want me to give it some attention... but not that much!

To summarize, there is a default state of appreciation for works of art: (Optimally) lots of attention upon first encounter, and then, occasionally, short bursts of attention from then on (if that).

Think about some work of art on your walls. Do you look at it -- SERIOUSLY look at it -- every day? Possibly...but probably not.

Nevertheless, if I were to sneak into your home and steal that piece, how long would it take before you noticed its absence? I don't know this for a fact, but I would guess that many people would quickly notice the missing artwork.

So -- this brings us back to the paradox: We want the art. We NEED the art. But when we have it, we ignore it most of the time.

To illustrate my general point, I give you this wonderful New Yorker cover by Carter Goodrich:

"I sketched this after coming back from a gallery,” Carter Goodrich said, about “Opening Night,” his cover for the new issue, which depicts a curious scene familiar to anyone who has visited Chelsea on a Thursday night: gallery visitors who appear more interested in each other than they do in the art. “It’s a comedy that repeats itself, over and over,” he said.