art, communication, interpersonal, lifestyle, self-expression, society

Art: Self-Expression or Communication?

Lou Watton

Have you ever wondered (deep inside, naturally) looking at a piece of art if there was something wrong with you? Something like this: ‘Here is an artistic work which has sold for millions, yet it doesn’t make any sense to me. I wouldn’t pay the price of a cup of coffee for it. I’d rather have another coffee…’ Indeed, how can a line against a coloured background be anything above what it is? And then you muse: ‘Am I missing something here? Maybe I’m not cultured enough? But what if I am right and the rest of the humankind has gone mad? What if it’s only a question of fashion, and someone just has to say that the king is naked! (It won’t be me, though.)’ If it has ever happened to you, know that you have walked into a paradox that cannot be solved, because the answer to all…

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art, child development, National Gallery, parenting, Van Dyck

The case of a missing Van Dyck

We have a copy of Van Dyck at home, as above. Here Van Dyck depicted his close friend, Francois Langlois, who was an engraver and an art dealer. This is my favourite work by Van Dyck, one he didn’t paint for big bucks and indeed never got a penny out of. For once he just painted what he liked.

Back in August, when my twins were 3 years and 2 months old my son asked me to explain what it was, pointing at the painting. So, I did. I said it was a painting by Van Dyck, of his friend.

‘And a dog,’ my son said.

‘Yes, there’s a dog here too,’ I agreed. ‘He must have had a dog.’

Then my son said:

‘Mammy, let’s go to Van Dyck.’

And I thought: Why not?

And so we went on our first visit to the National Gallery. My grand design was first to take them to the portrait they already knew, then try to explain to them that Van Dyck had painted many more things and show them around.

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To cut the short story short our visit to the National Gallery lasted about 3 minutes. When we entered Van Dyck’s room, we discovered that the portrait of Langlois wasn’t there. They had taken it down for whatever reason. They had no idea what a volatile material I was dealing with – brains of three-year-olds. I did my best to convince my little visitors that all they saw around was Van Dyck, but they kept on saying: ‘Mammy, let’s go home.’ And we did. As we were leaving, my son said: ‘Mammy, we’re going to see Van Dyck, alright?’ I replied: ‘Unfortunately not. Not until you appreciate there’s more to Van Dyck.’

After this visit they kept on reminding me about Van Dyck and the fact that they still hadn’t seen him (the panting is still on our wall, so I suppose there’s no escape). But weeks passed and eventually the word ‘Van Dyck’ parted from our vocabulary… Until the early days of October, when my daughter came up to me out of the blue and said: ‘Mammy, I want to see Van Dyck.’ So, I agreed once again and I didn’t regret.

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They were only 3 years 4 months old now, but the transformation was spectacular. There was still no trace of our good old Langlois, but they accepted that everything in the room was Van Dyck. I told them about the king. They were more excited about the horse. I told them: ‘If you must know Van Dyck didn’t even paint the horse. He wouldn’t paint horses and clothes. He would subcontract it.’ No, I’m not claiming they understood it (well, I just don’t know), but they listened to me attentively. I was able to take them to other rooms and we talked about boats and houses and trees. I showed them another Van Dyck, in another room. Then my son pointed to a painting opposite and asked: ‘Is this also Van Dyck?’ And I said: ‘No, this is Rubens.’ And thus we moved on.

From Van Dyck as an item to Van Dyck as a category in less than three months. From Van Dyck as a category to Van Dyck as a part of the artistic universe in one single visit. From one dimension to three… In less than three months they developed the ability to see a work of art not in isolation, but as a part of a larger creative input by the same individual. In less than a day they realised this input was only the beginning of their journey into the world of art. It looked like the next dimension was only around the corner.


We were so excited we went to the National Gallery again, and this time we took a proper adult tour of the place, getting properly tired as a result:


No new dimensions were discovered on that day.

art, opera, unrequited love

Una Furtiva Lagrima – the essence of unrequited love

L’elisir d’amore (Elixir of Love) is a popular opera by Gaetano Donizetti about unrequited love, and Una Furtiva Lagrima (One Furtive Tear) is by far its most well-known aria. This is one of the most performed arias of all times.

In the olden days the theme of unrequited love was always among the favourites in the works of art – a dear of poets, musicians and artists. In contemporary works it has no more than a faint presence, which is a shame, since it plays a prominent role as far as the human condition is concerned.

Unrequited love is one of the worst experiences you can have in life. There are plenty of those who will say experience is experience and it’s valuable for that, it makes you grow emotionally, it makes you who you are… Err… I can assure you that none of those who would say such a thing actually has proper experience of the matter. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? On rare occasions. Most of the time it scars you for life. Unrequited love is a nasty thing. It dwarfs you. It dehumanises you. You feel very small. You depend on someone’s mercy, but mercy is one thing you almost never get.

The main problem here is that people are mostly selfish. They are concerned only with their own hurts, and indifferent and even cruel when it comes to the hurts of others. Yes, no one is obliged to love. But in the olden days they probably had a better understanding of the fact that we all have responsibility to fellow human beings at the human level. In this respect sensitivity to the matters of heart becomes an obligation, even where feelings are absent. You are not obliged to love, but you have to be kind. Where an outright rejection can cause sufferings, understanding and compassion can gently take through the worst… But unfortunately this rarely happens, and Una Furtva Lagrima is as relevant as it was at the time it was written.

In my view this piece goes to the very root of the condition and captures its very essence. In this story the main protagonist is an uncouth peasant. He falls in love with a woman more sophisticated than himself, who has always been arrogant towards him, without any hope of winning her heart. So, in order to help himself he buys what he believes to be an elixir of love, a potion capable of making anyone irresistible to the object of his affection. In reality it’s just a cheap wine. He drinks it (which makes him completely drunk) and when he sees the woman of his dreams he spots a tear in her eyes. He believes his elixir is working and her tear is a sign that she has feelings for him… In reality she is simply annoyed with him.

Una furtiva lagrima
negli occhi suoi spuntò:
Quelle festose giovani
invidiar sembrò.
Che più cercando io vo?
Che più cercando io vo?
M’ama! Sì, m’ama, lo vedo. Lo vedo.
Un solo istante i palpiti
del suo bel cor sentir!
I miei sospir, confondere
per poco a’ suoi sospir!
I palpiti, i palpiti sentir,
confondere i miei coi suoi sospir…
Cielo! Si può morir!
Di più non chiedo, non chiedo.
Ah, cielo! Si può! Si, può morir!
Di più non chiedo, non chiedo.
Si può morir! Si può morir d’amor.

A single furtive tear
from her eyes sprang:
Of those festive, young girls
envious it seemed to be.
What more need I look for?
What more need I look for?
She loves me! Yes, she loves me, I see it. I see it.
Just for an instant the beating of
her beautiful heart I heard!
And my sighs became as one
fleetingly with her sighs!
Her heart beating, her heart beating to hear,
our sighs confounded as one…
Heavens! Yes I could, I could die!
More I can’t ask, I can’t ask.
Oh, heavens! Yes I could! Yes I could die!
More I can’t ask, I can’t ask.
Yes I could die! If I could die of love.

This is exactly what happens to you. You scour for any signs, however small, to convince yourself that you mean something to him/her, only to sober up and see that you have no meaning at all. This unrelenting roller-coaster your mind sends you on can exhaust you to delirium. Every sign can become a proof that you’re meant to be together, and the wilder your imagination runs, the more devastating your comeback to reality becomes. You see the tear, and you feel the heartbeat, and your respective sighs become as one… but then it strikes you that you’re on your own.

Next time you think you’re screwed – think Una Furtiva Lagrima.

art, communication, interpersonal, psychology, self-expression, society

Art: Self-Expression or Communication?

Have you ever wondered (deep inside, naturally) looking at a piece of art if there was something wrong with you? Something like this: ‘Here is an artistic work which has sold for millions, yet it doesn’t make any sense to me. I wouldn’t pay the price of a cup of coffee for it. I’d rather have another coffee…’ Indeed, how can a line against a coloured background be anything above what it is? And then you muse: ‘Am I missing something here? Maybe I’m not cultured enough? But what if I am right and the rest of the humankind has gone mad? What if it’s only a question of fashion, and someone just has to say that the king is naked! (It won’t be me, though.)’ If it has ever happened to you, know that you have walked into a paradox that cannot be solved, because the answer to all these questions is ‘yes’.


Mark Rothko, No 11 (untitled). Sold for $46,085,000 at a recent Christie’s auction

Contemporary art, which has its origins (or rather a jump-start) in the 19th century, is no longer about reaching out, it’s about chucking out and looking where it falls. Self-expression is now not only an artist’s motivation behind a project, it’s also the philosophy, the technique, the skills and the PR – it has truly replaced everything when it comes to an artistic activity. An artist is no longer confined within conventions, whether it comes to form or substance, and dos and don’ts of artistic expression is mostly a thing of the past.

Freedom of expression cannot be a bad thing in principle, but only if we are aware that this coin comes with two sides. Unrestrained freedom leads to a greater subjectivity, and with that – a practical impossibility to make any sense to anybody except of your good self. The event of communication all but disappears from it.

In the confines of the classical world if an artist had painted a tree and a shepherd on a sunny day to express pastoral mood, you could see it was a tree, you could just about make out a shepherd there, and you appreciated what the good weather was all about. It would be a largely hollow and overused image, a message that carried little meaning, a cliché in other words, but the communication between you and the artist had occurred.


Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Goatherd

Cliché is a derogatory word. Cliché stands for lack of imagination or skills, or both. But clichés also serve very useful purpose, as crippled as they are, and it goes to the core of the concept of individuality.

As independent, autonomous individuals we all operate at different frequencies. It means that our inner impulses are incompatible. If we want to forge a connection with a fellow human being, no matter how tenuous, we have to tune in first. We have to abandon the complexity of our inner workings and try to find common ground, which is usually more simplistic than what is really going on deep inside us. We are not seeking to find a full match, but only pathetic similarities. This is why we always start with a small talk when we meet someone for the first time (and that is not different even if we have a romantic interest in him/her). What we do is synchronise. To synchronise we use accepted, easy to grasp constructs – ‘Nice weather, huh?’ In fact, the totality of human language is one of such constructs, because not a single word or expression in any language reflect all the complexity of what is going on within or beyond us. They provide no more than an approximation of all those things. Therefore, we simply use what we have available to make our first timid step. Having thus synchronised at a superficial level, we can proceed to finer tuning, and how far you can go only depends on the will of the two parties. In the end you may even reach nirvana, if there is absolutely no resistance on both sides, so be careful.

Just as in personal relationships, in arts your aim is to forge a connection, be it with people you have never seen and may never see. If you have failed, no one needs your art (whether deservedly or not) and for you it can be nothing but misery. One way to forge connections, again by analogy with the face-to-face interactions, is through the use of accepted constructs, only in the language of arts they are called clichés. This is what clichés are – they are means of communication. This is where trees and weather conditions and decipherable human figures can be very helpful. (And just as with the words and the language not only complete messages, but every decipherable object can be called a cliché, because in every case it’s only a recognisable interpretation, a generic category, and never the real thing.) Having established contact, you then take your viewer further. And who said you can’t? A painting can look misleadingly simple, yet possess uncanny psychological depth and carry a profound existential message. Static qualities can be suggestion of concealed emotion, a sharp contour can be a cry for help, a muted palette – a call to rise above and think.


Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Hunters in the Snow

Expressive and abstract arts are not interested in exciting our conventional receptors and in that they reject accepted constructs. They aim straight for our subconsciousness. The question is do they get there? They have to wade through layers and layers of preconceptions, preferences and experiences, which is our consciousness. Yes, it is entirely possible that at that crucial moment of viewing an isolated individual was in a certain frame of mind and at a certain stage of his life that enabled him to take in and be taken by the image. But how many were not?

Perhaps, artists are aware of these limitations, because they do take steps to address them. This is where a caption enters the scene. Undoubtedly, it is an agent between the viewer and the work, a third party in their relationship, but in that it works with our consciousness, not against it, on the bumpy road to our subconscious.

The particular work by Mark Rothtko mentioned above had the following caption against it:

With its warm and fiery range of shimmering orange and vermillion rectangles interrupted by the delicate band of almost translucent white, No. 11 (Untitled) exemplifies the sense of ‘presence’ that Mark Rothko sought to establish in his most powerful works. Painted as the world entered the nuclear age, No. 11 (Untitled) perfectly captures the duality of the 1950s — encompassing the potential of the human spirit while at the same time reflecting the dark forces that Rothko felt existed deep within the human soul.

Pity, Rothko didn’t say it. The auction house did, no doubt to release the potential bidders of the burden of all the paradoxes only us, mere mortals, can afford to indulge in. What about Rothko himself? His guidance falls just short of being a caption: A painting is not a picture of experience. It is an experience. And this is what we are expected to do – to free our mind, to shed our preconceptions and simply try to experience, which takes us back to our questions.

‘Am I missing something here?’ Yes, a world bigger and greater than what you see. ‘Am I not cultured enough?’ Yes, if you can’t see there is a world beyond. ‘Has the humankind gone mad?’ Yes, because if this is not nonsense, nothing at all can be dismissed as nonsense anymore, but we know for a fact that some of it is. Is it a question of fashion? Yes it is! Because almost anyone can create along these lines and no one at all will ever pay a penny for it. So, what the hell is going on?

Subjectivity… This is what subjectivity is all about. It’s about existing and not existing at the same time. It is a state in-between the two extremes, and only an instance of communication grounds it firmly in reality. If an act of self-expression has forged a connection with only one soul, it becomes real. If this soul has $46M to spare to keep the memory of that connection, it becomes fashionable. Self-expression alone is only a hope of connection. Art, on the other hand, is about building bridges. But the most important thing is that even in that twilight form self-expression is all worth it. If you have something to express, you have to just go ahead and do it, even if you then spend the rest of your life trying to bridge it.