What we don't know: in praise of first impressions

The Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston, the courtyard (Click on image for larger version, greater detail)

I found Sebastian Smee's article in the August 24 Boston Sunday Globe both instructive in terms of art and insightful in broader philosophical terms. (Smee is also a fine writer!) I often find Robert Campbell's work as the Globe's architecture critic of the same kind and quality. Art and architecture are inseparable from the philosophical foundations of our life and culture and therein lies their meaning.

One doesn't go to a museum to gawk at objects but rather to be changed by what one sees. One doesn't understand a building simply by looking at its skin but rather by entering it's space and probing its interior. One doesn't read a book to know what its words say but rather to become part of the story being told. One doesn't listen to a piece of music simply to hear beautiful sounds but rather to be swallowed up by them. Smee opens up this conversation by musing on his move from Australia, on the art he's encountered, on his own craft - and on his first impressions here in Boston and its environs.

Reflecting on my own visit to the MFA this summer and my love of El Greco's work, I found Smee's commentary very helpful. What he has to say about the intimacy to which first impressions invite us is a lesson in human relationships as well as in art.

Smee, previously the national art critic for The Australian, assumed the position of visual arts critic at the Globe
this past June.

In Praise of First Impressions

(Emphasis added by ConcordPastor)

Perhaps I am too susceptible. But I am always amazed, when traveling, at how much better looking the locals appear than the people back home. The illusion - and it is almost invariably an illusion - rarely lasts more than a few days. But there's no denying the phenomenon. It is, when all is said and done, one of the enduring attractions of travel.

Loving art and moving, as I recently did, from Australia to a city famous for its great art collections can bring on a similar rush of infatuation, giving all one's beady-eyed observations an artificial, suspect aura. Can you believe that gorgeous Gardner Museum? Is there a greater late Turner than the one you saw on your tour of the Clark Art Institute? Wasn't the de Kooning pulled from the storage racks by the director of the Rose Art Museum the most stunning de Kooning you've seen in years?

Yes, no, and yes. Perhaps. Maybe. Conceivably.

But accuracy is not really the point. The point is that seeing new things in new contexts puts you in a state of receptiveness that is extremely precious.

First impressions are rarely reliable. But we accord them special status for a reason. Something about the state of mind in which first impressions form has its own intrinsic value. It's called ignorance. It's called not knowing. It's linked to curiosity, to thought-experiment, to desire, to eroticism. And it's definitely linked to art.

Lately, I have been sidling up to the idea that not knowing can be just as valuable as knowing.

The idea came on with a rush during a recent visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The Gardner is associated, I realize, with conservative taste, with Boston high society, with old money. But the public conception of the place, I am convinced, has it all wrong.

The Gardner is in fact one of the most radical museums in the world. You go there, and - in stark contrast to almost every other public art museum in existence - you are not told what to think by wall labels. You are not told what individual works "mean." You are not even told, in most cases, who made them.

The experience is disorienting. It is unsettling. And gradually - because what you are looking at is so good - it induces rapture.

Certain people - we all know the type - like to say that they don't know much about art, but they know what they like. It's one of those maddening formulations, half insecurity, half boast, that seems intended to drive a critic crazy, so loaded is it with insinuations about the pretentiousness of art and the irrelevance of expertise.

The flip side, however, is that thinking you know a lot about art can get in the way of truly experiencing it.

Certainly as a critic, the longer you do the same job and the better you know your own particular beat, the harder it becomes to keep your responses as free and instinctual as they should be. Secondary factors start to take over from primary ones. What you've learned about art-world politics, institutional finances, and personalities takes up more and more space in your head. You can end up as a fulminating polemicist, or you can find yourself adopting a tone of Olympian detachment. Either way, you're liable to forget that art, at its best, is intimate. It's supposed to get inside you.

All of which is why I think it's good for critics to move around from time to time. Especially art critics. Visual art, after all, is the most stubbornly local of all the arts. A lot may have happened in the last few decades to globalize things, especially in the art market and on the exhibition circuit. But in the end, there's only one "Don Balthasar Carlos With a Dwarf" by Diego Velazquez (it's in the Museum of Fine Arts) and only one "Young Woman Reclining in Spanish Costume" by Edouard Manet (it's in the Yale University Art Gallery). If you want to see them, and get to know them, you have to go there.

Or move there. Which is, it seems, what I have done.

Three months ago I moved with my family to Boston from Sydney, where I worked as art critic at The Australian. Before that, I had four years working as a critic in London. Since arriving in Boston, there have been distractions aplenty: finding a house, dealing with jetlagged and discombobulated kids, trying to come to grips with the enigma that was Manny Ramirez. And then there's what I came for: the art.

Inevitably, since shortly after my arrival here, people have been keen to know my impressions of Boston and its art scene. They want, I fear, something incisive, something that might slice and dice the scene with Zorro-like panache. After all, am I not a professional critic, a ruthless observer who's spent years developing outsize antennae, honing savage bon mots?

Well, yes, I am a critic, and critics, as a rule, are opinionated. But I am also a new arrival like any other, and really the strongest urge I have felt is to say "Wow." I want to express how magical it is to walk into galleries and museums that were only names to me a year ago, discovering things I hadn't imagined I would ever see for myself.

I want to wax lyrical, for instance, about my drive out to the Berkshires and back, when I saw the marvelous Clark Institute, the Williams College Museum of Art, and Mass MoCA in a single day. I want to chatter about those weirdly eroticized studies of body parts by Ingres at Harvard's Fogg Museum, the stately sumptuousness of the Asian galleries at the MFA, the crazy congeries of precious objects at the inimitable Peabody Essex Museum, the thrill of watching a storm come in over Boston Harbor at the ICA.

I'm succumbing, I realize, to emotions that for a critic are decidedly suspect. But put me in the dock, and I have my little defense, which - though it may sound counterintuitive coming from a critic - boils down to a conviction that the value of inexperience, of not-knowing, is increasingly underappreciated in the art world today.

Art, it seems, is once again about what you know. It's all part of society's driving determination to equate authority with knowledge, its obsession with statistics and measurement, its mass-media-related habits of strenuous persuasion and ringing certainties.

It's easy to forget in such a climate that artists - at least the best ones - create things not because they know stuff and want to tell us about it, but precisely because they don't know stuff, and want to explore that state of not knowing, to feel it out, to prod it, isolate it, and reconnect it with other kinds of experience.

You wouldn't grasp this from most random encounters with the art world. Increasingly, art is treated as another branch of empirical knowledge, or at least an opportunity for edification. It doesn't matter if they show contemporary art or old masters, craft or photography: Museums in recent years have gone into interpretive overdrive.

Thus what we get is more and more art presented to us in the most condescending and limiting terms. This work will encourage us to consider "diversity, vulnerability, and the individual." This guy's "practice as an artist is concerned with questioning the relationship between the viewer and what is being viewed." And on it goes.

Yes, museums must play an educational role, and yes, they should strive to give their collections and temporary exhibitions scholarly weight. But they seem to have fallen for the notion that an artwork's worth and interest reside exclusively in what it is "about." Where they get this idea is anyone's guess.

What is Anish Kapoor's work at the ICA really about? When you look at that wonderful spherical bump protruding from the wall, for instance, who is to say what it "means"?

When I Am Pregnant by Anish Kapoor

The work is called "When I Am Pregnant", but it's not a work "about" pregnancy. It's not "exploring" pregnancy or "raising issues" about it, or "questioning the relationship" between one thing and another. It is just doing what art does - which is to say beguiling us, seducing us, convincing us, firing our imaginations.


Great artists know that the human soul is deep, complex, mysterious, irreducible, and they have found extraordinary ways to express this.

My suspicion is that those who presume to present art - or write or talk about it - are often embarrassed by the messiness of artistic creation. For the truth is that there is a great deal about making art that is not only messy, in the literal sense, but clumsy, humdrum, awkward, lacking in profundity. And because it is hard to know what to say about these aspects of the process, we ignore them, or try to clean them up.

Then, of course, there is the embarrassing matter of artists themselves. It can be distasteful to contemplate what is actually involved in being an artist, what a blind and fumbling business it often is.

We live, as the Picasso scholar Anne Baldessari has pointed out, in an anti-Romantic, hygienist era, which rejects the genesis of art, preferring instead to focus on the outward manifestation of works. We are humbled, threatened, and mystified by it all at once. And so we snigger at the stereotype: barrel-chested Picasso in his Y-fronts - the priapic egotist! Bearded Matisse behind his spectacles with his pigeons and his scissors - the silly old duffer! As for those poor deluded beings who cut off their ears or commit suicide or turn to alcohol or drugs or suffer nervous breakdowns - God knows, the list is endless - well, it is all a shame, but if one really must turn oneself into a cliché, so be it. It's much easier to pretend that art is immaculately conceived, and to focus instead on its "meanings."

Don't get me wrong: Ignorance can get you in all sorts of trouble. But right now, as a recent arrival in Boston, I'm identifying with the ignorant, the inexperienced, and the ambivalent, and I want to stick up for them. I think there is value in approaching art with a certain naivete. So I want to defend the right not to know, just to look.

Here, then, is the message I want to put out there: If you like looking at things, get out. Shake things up. Go to an edgy gallery in South Boston or on Harrison Avenue. Check out the Art Nouveau jewelry show at the MFA. Spend a whole day at the Peabody Essex Museum. Don't, in short, feel daunted by everything you don't know.

(Read the whole article here.)

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

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