If you saw my blog post from February, you’ll have seen that I am incorporating a more spiritual approach to my work as an art advisor; I want to empower my clients to realize they already have the tools to connect to art in profound ways—that is, they need only to cultivate their innate ability of mindfulness to “get” a work of art (to learn more, check out my short tutorial video on Mindfulness & Art). With this mindset, I consider it my duty to cultivate my clients’ mindful understanding of the art, as much as it is my duty to share my expertise on the art.
In essence, I am drawing a distinction between knowledge—information that is learned through study and investigation—and wisdom, which is the type of knowledge learned through (mindful) experience. As an art expert, I can bring my knowledge on such-and-such artist, or historical movement, or provide a market analysis on an artwork. But mindfulness must come from within the client, and so too shall the wisdom s/he gains from an art encounter.
Some art advisors or scholars might scoff at the suggestion that someone could understand art through mindfulness; how ‘woo-woo’! And aren’t I dismissing the importance of scholarship? I would answer with a resounding no: knowledge is powerful, and study is important. I am rather trying to move away from the pretentious elitism that has become synonymous with the art world (literally—if you search “pretentious” on thesaurus.com, “arty” is first on the list), to open up art to those who think it is inaccessible to them. Art is for everybody, and mindfulness is the tool to make it available to everybody.
To illustrate this distinction between intuitive understanding and what can sometimes be the blind pretention of the “experts,” I wanted to share a personal story. A few months ahead of my freshman year at Williams College, I received the thick course catalog to choose my classes for the fall semester. My father, an alumnus of the school, told me that his only regret from his college days was that he never took a course in art history—one of Williams’ most distinguished and famous departments—and he encouraged me to take a class. My family always put great value in the arts, and we took regular trips to New York City to take in museum shows, theater, and the occasional ballet. But I had no formal training or understanding of art, and it sounded interesting. So, I took his advice and enrolled in Art History 101 for my freshman fall term, which covered a survey of architecture. By the time we got to the gothic cathedrals of Europe, I knew I was hooked. I eagerly signed up for part two of Art History 101 in the spring semester—a survey of painting and sculpture. By the time spring rolled around, I knew I wanted to major in art history.
Early in the spring term, we were assigned a formal analysis paper. A formal analysis is a discussion of a work of art based solely on what you see—the color, brushwork, style, composition, etc. (these are called the “formal qualities” of a work of art). We were given strict instructions that we could not look up anything about the artist or artwork we were assigned, beyond the bare bones of the artist’s name, the artwork’s title, and its size and medium. If there was evidence we had done research, we would essentially get an F.
I was assigned an oil on cardboard work by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec called Jane Avril (1891-92), in the collection of the Clark Art Institute, the world-class museum in our sleepy little college town. Fueled by my newfound love of art, I walked to the Clark with excited anticipation to take in this artwork: what I encountered was a half-length portrait of a woman, dressed in a purple cape overcoat with a fur trim. Her grand, high collar cradled a long, white-painted face, framed by flat yellow hair, which was, in turn, crowned with a lavish hat, replete with feathers, drawn in rich blue and green hues. Hurried green and blue strokes surrounded the figure, but the artist also left much of the cardboard ground exposed.
I did not know who Jane Avril was. At that point, I don’t even think I knew who Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was, either—we hadn’t gotten to post-Impressionism yet. But that was the point: just take in the art, and justify your conclusions based on what you see. I looked at her outfit: she must be outside, as she’s wearing an overcoat and hat. If she’s outside, the falling blue and green paint strokes could be rain, then, I thought. With few details in the work, I spent a long time studying her face. Her facial features were severe: a sharp, pointy chin; thin, pursed lips, painted bright red; a sharp nose leading to small, beady eyes under heavy, swollen lids. I followed her gaze, which was directed off to her left to a strong light source, unseen to the viewer. If she’s outside, perhaps it’s the headlights of a car, or possibly a street lamp, I thought. Were cars invented by 1891? Well, not sure I can look it up…Oh well, whatever the source, the light was harsh and unforgiving.
Ultimately, I concluded, this was not a flattering portrait: this woman looked haggard, and her sharp features were downright unattractive. The raking light cast shadows in the bags under her weary eyes, and made her face look gaunt. Her high, arched eyebrows and pursed lips gave her tired expression a hint of haughtiness. As she seemed finely dressed, perhaps this was an upper-class woman, putting on airs. But, with her averted gaze, she also seemed preoccupied—her mind somewhere else, off in the lights to her left. Whoever this Jane Avril was, she had seen better days.
I sat in front of the work for an hour and a half. Only recently did I realize that this time spent in front of the work was a practice in mindfulness; I was solely focused on the artwork, staying in the present moment—just me and the art. Through awareness, presence, patience and compassion—a true commitment to feel and understand the work—I unpacked the work’s meaning through mindfulness. I wrote a paper that I was immensely proud of—it was well-written, and well-argued. Nailed it, I thought.
A few weeks later we got our papers back, and I was devastated to see I had gotten a B- on the paper. As an overachieving nerd, I was unaccustomed to Bs, but I was especially shocked because as a pre-art history major, I was so invested in the subject. I requested to meet with the professor for my section to discuss my grade.
“Jane Avril was a friend of Toulouse-Lautrec’s—he wouldn’t paint an unflattering portrait of her,” this professor (who shall remain nameless) said. I was flabbergasted. I walked her through each formal quality to justify my argument. “Jane Avril was a performer at the Moulin Rouge,” she retorted. “She’s wearing heavy makeup for the stage, and that bright light is the stage lights.” I pointed out to her that every single fact she just stated was based on research that I was not allowed to do. How could I know Jane Avril was a stage performer? In the portrait, she’s dressed to be outside, so if the light is stage light, it must be symbolic. There’s no logical way I could conclude those are stage lights based on the artwork alone! And besides, these facts still didn’t detract from my primary argument: this still was an unflattering portrait of a haggard woman. But the professor refused to acknowledge my arguments, and, of course, refused to change my grade.
In the professor’s eyes, I didn’t “get” the artwork because I did not conclude that this woman was a cabaret performer. Nearly twenty years later, I still think the professor was wrong. I would argue that I absolutely “got it:” Henri Toulouse-Lautrec painted a portrait of an exhausted woman who is not present with the viewer, because she’s lost in a haze of her thoughts. If you know the context of who Jane Avril was, then those details begin to flesh out one’s understanding: she’s exhausted because she performs cabaret late into the night. So, she is dressed in her coat because she’s likely leaving the theater in the early hours of the morning, and she’s drained. The context of knowing Jane Avril’s identity helps explain her puffy eyes and tired expression, but at the end of the day, as the viewer, all you see are the puffy eyes and tired expression. There are almost no other details in the painting, other than her face. The fact that she’s a cabaret performer is ancillary.
In fact, the fact that we are not seeing Jane Avril on stage only underscores that this is a psychological portrait—that is, Toulouse-Lautrec is more interested in her interior mood offstage, not Jane-Avril-The-Performer. Compare this work, for instance, to many other depictions of Jane Avril by Toulouse-Lautrec: he created several works in which Avril is on stage singing with arms open wide, or dancing, with legs flailing. Obviously, we can conclude that she’s a performer in those! In the work at the Clark Art Institute, however, her body is hidden, contained by the heavy coat. Her expression is withdrawn, and again—tired. This is not Jane Avril of the stage.
In a more complete painting from about the same time (1892) called Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec again depicts Avril outside, in street clothes, by herself. Like the portrait from the Clark, this is a psychological portrait: without the descriptive title, you would not know who she is or what she does. The focus is on her mood: she seems lost in thought, and there’s a loneliness to her countenance as she walks the street by herself. The portrait at the Clark Art Institute is closer to this work than any of Toulouse-Lautrec’s depictions of her onstage.
Can I feel my ego seeking vindication even twenty years, later? OK, yes (settle down, ego!). But my point, ultimately, is to use this example to draw the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Learning the context of the work of art—i.e. obtaining knowledge through research and scholarship—can greatly enhance your understanding. My professor, as a scholar, searches for truth through research and investigation. But her mistake is that she believed that enlightenment only comes through acquiring the investigative knowledge—that is, without properly identifying Jane Avril as a performer, I must not have understood the painting.
In actuality, the fact that Jane Avril was a cabaret star was hardly the point of the portrait; the actual purpose of the painting was to portray an introspective moment for a weary woman at the end of a long night of work. And I did get that—I understood the painting on an intuitive level, without knowing who Jane Avril was. Why? Because she’s human, and I’m human, and I recognized the universal experience we share. And this is an illustration of wisdom: knowledge acquired through the mindful experience of being human. Knowledge and wisdom are complementary forces, and important to our understanding of the world.
I firmly believe that if you sit down in front of a work of art and apply the principles of mindfulness—that is, if you stay present, in the moment; maintain awareness; have patience and take your time (it could take hours!); and endeavor for compassionate understanding—the meaning of that work of art will likely reveal itself to you. You will “get it.” There may be historical, cultural or social references that you won’t catch based solely on what you see, but with a truly good work of art, its truth will transcend those limitations, and you will still understand the truth of the artwork.
And what is that truth? All art is an expression of our higher selves, and when we experience a work of art and truly “get it,” we are seeing our reflection of our higher selves. And it is a beautiful, transcendental feeling.