“Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting with the gift of speech.” —Simonides
We see—or think we see—directly, objectively. We believe what is out there to be seen is seen the same by all. What we read is different, letters, words and sentences are symbols; they are signifiers of a different sort than their significant others. And only convention, a fragile agreement amongst argumentative selves, connects them.
The recluse doesn’t see like us—like we think we see—he sees like we read. Metaphors and metonyms are his lenses. Where we see some teens hanging out, a neighbor in his yard, other neighbors going to work; he sees camaraderie monetized, love idealized/commodified and career-making stereotyped. It’s no wonder that he prefers to stay inside.
We have often, off and on, in times past understood the visual arts as both seen and as read. We, these days, read some and see others. Medieval European peasants read the windows of their churches the same way we read Ikea-style instructional illustrations. Today we don’t read stained glass for instruction, we just see it as beautiful. The classical Greeks read religion into their statues of gods and goddesses, but all we see there is realistically carved sexualized objects.
Renaissance artists revived the mimetic classical style and mixed it with the message of the medievals and gave us a naturalistic fantasy style—see illustration above for an example—which if you think about it, is impossibly paradoxical. Still, this oxymoron was the alpha dog in the art pack for almost half a millennium.
But 200 years ago younger beasts sensed weakness in the old guard and began to challenge their reign. The copying of nature “objectively” and loading it with main stream propaganda soon was relegated to broadsheet adverts and Midwestern state houses. Art, elsewhere, could now be simply seen, just read or a combination of the two.
But in these post-everything—except apocalypse—days, even that is not so simple. Art can be seen as l’art pour l’art or as a copy of nature or any other reality. It can even be a copy of art for art sake art! It can be read as well; and the message can be sincere or ironic, propaganda or nonsense, or all of that at once.
Confusing? Let me try to help.
First, there’s “fine” art. That’s art that’s labeled that by art world officials and is marketed as such. Its value is inflated beyond that of a significant in its own right object by the celebrity of its perpetrator and the best guesses of the above mentioned officials as to its investment value. Ignore this “art” unless it’s no longer for sale and you can enjoy it for the cost of going to a museum.
Instead appreciate the art closer by, from artists you’ve met or researched. Buy their graphic novels, tee shirts and other objets d’art. “Like” them, share their links if you can’t buy them. Go to their events. Trust your own judgment and experience on what art is good and what is not. And be wary of the would-be celebrities, and crafty posers hiding among the sincere artists; they are opportunistic entrepreneurs and algorithmic marketeers out for your cash not your respect.