WORD AND IMAGE ONE DEVELOPMENT IN AESTHETIC AWARENESS By Paul Henrickson, Ph.D.
© 2005 Over the course of several decades and in various geographical locations where unbeckoned illumination took place, it gradually occurred to me that my educational environment was faulty and that I had been , perhaps, unintentionally, but cruelly, misled. Three decades had passed before the first illuminating breakthrough occurred. I was in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA wandering through the rooms of The Minneapolis Art Institute which were hosting an impressive exhibition of the work of six contemporary Italian artists. I no longer remember their names, besides their names ceased to become important once I had taken quick glance at the walls where large twometer canvases were hanging. There was one in particular which commanded my attention because of the energetic, nearly violent existence. The color range was relatively narrow being made up of ochres, siennas, and whites, but the way the artist had attached the paint to the surface, the record of his physical process of laying the pigment on in massive levels and the varying rhythms by which this was accomplished was most striking. I tried, out of a sense of decorum, a talent I may finally have shed, to pay courtesy visits to the other contributors to the exhibition. This sounds like a horrible put down of the other works but I do not mean it that way for there was not one incompetent work on exhibit, but this one, this one work kept drawing me into its environment, and if I tried to leave, it would pull me back to draw more of my bewilderment from me. Finally I grew frustrated at having been kept from making decisions on my own and more subject to the influences of an inanimate object. After all, the responsibility imposed upon one born in Boston, Massachusetts where the Lowells speak only to the Cabots and the Cabots only to the Lodges and the Lodges only to God, personal behavior is defined by nothing if not self-control. Then, like Paul of Tarsus who had been knocked off his horse by some illumination I was “cut off at the knees” when what I had found so attractive, appealing and valuable, that which I had very nearly fallen
in love with, with its subtle, dramatic and exciting variations, turned magically malevolent, as the devil might do if he thinks he’s made his capture, and revealed itself for what it was, the image of a dirty public john. This was my first really memorable experience with the broad parameters of aesthetic response. Words I had grown accustomed to and thought I understood, were suddenly incomprehensible to me. Either I had been lied to and I had been a fool to believe in my mentors, or those others didn’t know what they were talking about and what they were talking about was not my experience. This, I believe, describes the war between wordy intellection and sensual experience. This is the area appropriate language must bridge if it is to function as an intermediary between experience and communication. The importance lesson for me from this experience was that, at the very least, understanding of the meaning of the word “aesthetic” was broadened. No longer was it possible for me to use the word “aesthetic” and mean something attractive, pleasant, and desirable. I must now be willing to include the ugly, the smelly, the dirty, crude and vulgar…in short, the expressive. There are new responsibilities attending this new aesthetic awareness, responsibilities I’d not been aware of before I moved to southwest Virginia and was teaching a group of young women about certain periods in the history of art. In this particular case I was using as a base line the ubiquitous subject matter of the Virgin and Child and attempting to point out certain critical differences between the examples we had before us. Because I was so intent upon not focusing on the religious aspects of the works, but their formal qualities the message intended was not the message received. When one of these works I described as not really being “up to par”, that it was not really “a good Virgin and Child” the reaction from those well-bred ladies from Virginia was quite strong, but not because of any religious reason, fir these girls were Southern Baptist, but because, in their minds, it simply was not possible to be a bad virgin or child. They had also extended the meaning of my statement to being critical of virginity and motherhood.
What this ultimately meant to me was that one’s private, sensual vision will be sacrificed if there develops a contest between what one thinks one sees and what one perceives the peer vision to be. This behavior is a form of suicide. I later put this to another test when I chose the names of ten well-known and respected artists and asked the class to rank order them. Rembrandt was one of those names and his name was universally placed at the top of the list as being the very best of all. The I showed them slides of little known drawings by these same artists and asked them to rank order the drawings. Rembrandt was ranked at the bottom of the list. From this and from other observations, I concluded that for the sake of social solidarity most people would sacrifice their own personal observations and deny their sensual experience.
Rembrandt: study for Great Jewish Bride
From south-west Virginia of the twentieth century, which could never forget the colonial eighteenth century, where upper class residences were still being constructed of brick, were white shuttered, and the walls of rooms where one received guests were painted a discrete pale green trimmed in white, I left, like Gauguin, to luxuriate sensually for four years on a tropical island paradise in the Pacific, where on some of the islands the women are bare breasted until they spot a white man when they then quickly grasp a square piece of cloth which the carry for the purpose and deftly suspend it by two of its corners from their compressed arm pits and where the men of status display the proofs of their importance, their tattoos which cover their bodies from wrist to neck to ankle, with only a bright red loin cloth with a long red tail covering their groins. Here the language literally does not distinguish
between “love”, “like”, “want”, and “desire” for such refined degrees of erotic attraction seem unimportant, or are non-existent. Here one did not commit a form of suicide by not acknowledging the sensual. A fact which was not too surprisingly confirmed by a very dear friend whom I asked to tell me how many children he had. “I have ten” he responded and then he looked me in the eye and added “…by my wife”. I persisted, “…and how many altogether?” Well, he thought about it for awhile, gave another number and when I told him about a few he hadn’t known about the ultimate number was thirty. “Gaius”, I told him , “this has got to stop. The world is already over populated.” “Yes”, he responded. I wondered how this “new world order” was going to be promulgated.
A Young Man from Kosrai
When I returned to civilization as it was practiced I the mid-west state of Iowa and concerned myself with the nature of creative thought one of the discoveries revealed to me showed me exactly how this “new world order” was to be achieved and Aldous Huxley was right when in 1958 be observed that the “Brave New World” he had foreseen was to come about methodically. [One of the more interesting statistical outcomes of my study was the interesting relationship between the 4% of the more and the 4% of the less creative subjects. The more creative subjects who were in their late ‘teens achieved a grade point average which consistently from the last years of high school into the first two years of college was one grade point lower than the less creative subjects who were also in their late ‘teens. The less creative subjects, on two out of three lie scales, achieved
significant correlations with measures of creativeness suggesting that in order to achieve acceptable course grades, and to appear to agree with their judges suppressed the sensual data they received in favor of status. R.D.Laing did a study of schizophrenic teen age girls in England and found that there seemed to be a relationship between the modes of verbal sexual instruction as controlled by the mothers, subsequent adaptation to social constructs, and the information the girls had been receiving from their own bodies. So, there may be something good to say about calling something by what it is. This brings me to that point where my comments may be seen to border on sophistry, when I might test the flexibility of your thinking about the contemporary art scene when I try to get you to see that what is “real” is really “abstract”, and what is “abstract” is really “real”. With the examples included here, one a nineteenth century painting attributed to the German-American painter, Albert Bierstadt and a twentieth century painting by the German painter Hans Hoffman. I would wager that 90-odd% of contemporary commentators would agree that the Bierstadt painting was a realistic work and the same 90-odd% would agree that the Hoffman was abstract. I shall attempt to point out that these conclusions are inconsistent with the facts. In both these instances, the Bierstadt and the Hoffman, the artist had been working with “real” materials, the paint, the canvas; the solvents were all “real”. To this extent, at least, the two artists’ approaches to their art do not differ. Both artists manipulated the medium to bring about certain visual results. These results differ significantly, but the kinetic behaviors do not. Bierstadt, whether or not he completed this landscape while confronted with the objective world, was obviously concerned about how that world appeared and he adjusted his behaviors to achieve, as closely as possible, a visual resemblance to that world. However, it is only appropriate to point out that the reality of the painting does not offer the viewer a replicable scale, temperature, or odor of pine. To that extent, then, this landscape is a fraudulent work if we insist upon using the terms “real”, “realistic” to describe it. On the other Hans Hoffman offers us colors, shapes, arrangements, which do not mislead the viewer
who may, however, due to the still prevalent expectations of his social environment –that art aught to re-present the outside world, discount Hoffman’s achievement by the extent to which he fails to represent the objective world. This latent prejudice has interfered seriously with our comprehension, in spite of the efforts of artists like Pollock, deKooning and Kline.
Albert Bierstadt: “Yosemite”
Hans Hoffman: “Red Sky” These observations should exalt the observations of the eighteenth century hostess Madam de Stael, to the effect, that those who demand that painting have a subject matter were missing the point. Her observation is enhanced when remember that for the most part her contemporary art world was populated by Fragonard, Boucher, and Watteau. She did not have, as we do, the works of Pollock, deKooning and Kline to instruct her. Our ability, at the elementary level of observation, to understand what we see, have been so warped by the pressures of various peer groups to have all see the way the majority have agreed everything should be seen that we, to, continue to deny the reality of our perceptions. Although I am loath to give the man credit, Brezhnev was correct when he explained to the American painter Jamie Wyeth that one should not underestimate the power of an image.
Wyeth.Jamie: “Fog Bound”
Wyeth, James: “Pig” This power can be illustrated by yet another expression of peer pressure when an organization as influential as Daimler-Chrysler features the work of the American Andy Warhole and furthers his undeserved reputation as a “genius” with the undisguised self-aggrandizing motivation of profit, monetary and reputational with no regard for the effect upon a thoughtless population in so far as their aesthetic perceptions may be enhanced. When I was seven years old, or six, I would cut out the images of Cadillacs, Buicks, and Pontiacs from advertising brochures and drive them at exorbitant speeds with great motor sounds coming from my childish mouth, but I knew what the reality was and that I was allowed to do what I was doing without a driver’s license. The difference between that legitimate childish activity and the Daimler, Chrysler, Warhol conspiratorial behavior to join in the minds of the general public the acceptability of the aesthetic values of the democratic mean to the inherent values of an automobile manufacturer may make sense to the accountant and an evil behavioral psychologist but is totally unacceptable to an idealist in any discipline, academic or not.
The Daimler-Chysler Collection: advertisement
To sum up, if that is possible, disengaging the artistic process from its historic attachment to “another reality”, be it political, religious, or product centered, is an essential quality of intelligent creative behavior which is guided by humanitarian interests. Another aspect of the development of an aesthetic response system is the tendency to measure artistic excellence by technically good behavior misses the point and would encourage preferring the “divine” Raphael to Michelangelo, Jacque Louis David to Rembrandt, and, in sculpture Houdin to Rodin.
Raphael Santi: “Madonna and Child”
Michelangelo Buonarotti: “Portrait of a youth”
Jacques-Louis David: “Armor and Psychi”
Rembrandt van Rijn: “The Night Watch”
Houdin: Portrait of George Washington
August Rodin: “Burghers of Calais”
Language appropriately used to clarify perceptions can affect an important change in our cultural development.