Before we wander off into the ravines of crazy valley, what I mean by talking to a work of art is actually almost akin to the process of thinking. But unlike thinking about our next holiday or what we’re going to have for dinner tonight, the experience of art is a bit more like a dialogue based on empathy, albeit towards a block of sculpted rock or a piece of smudged canvas.
When we experience a painting, and I mean sit down or stand in front of it, in peace and silence and really give it time to just sink in — something probably only a few of us do and usually only on rare occasions — we open up to the possibility to have a “conversation” with the work itself.
They way this works is nothing less than a testament to the miracle that is the human mind; we experience art not only as a collection of materials that can conjure up thoughts in our mind, but as a collection of functions or tools that we can use to change our state of mind.
Now obviously the kind of tools an art piece offers us aren’t the same as those we would use to hammer a nail or saw a block of wood — art provides mental tools, embodied by its material traits, that can give us the right stimulation to help us understand certain things about our lives and ourselves or to enforce beliefs we already had.
If for example I take my time and experience a late abstract painting by Mark Rothko, the giant painting with its intricately applied thin layers of contrasting paint can and will trigger an emotional response inside of me eventually.
It all begins with the nature of our vision and how such abstract works do not posses any real hard edges or points to fix our eyes upon. Our eyes thus wander, our vision becomes a bit shaky and results in the painting looking like it’s moving and it’s colours begin to slowly mix.
But apart form being a free magic mushroom equivalent for the mind, a good abstract painting provides stimulation for the mind too. After a while you can’t but begin to feel emotional about it and the emotions then trigger mental responses, caused by the releases of hormonal cocktails in our bodies.
I usually feel small when I sit in front of a Rothko, I feel like there are immensely bigger things in life than me or anything that is dear to me — psychoanalysis calls this experience the sublime.
When this happens, the protective layers of the ego break down and one is left in a vulnerable place; unprotected by ones beliefs, self-confidence, material possessions or any other element that guards us from becoming sad, even depressed.
It’s actually a lot like the feeling you get after something detrimental happens in your life, but without the lingering sadness that such events produce.
Like watching a sad movie on TV, you become involved in the story and can even cry and share other emotions with the main characters. But after the movie is done, deep inside yourself you know you’re unaffected by their pain and any other emotions they might have felt.
It’s all fiction in the end.
And exactly because it’s fiction, all art — regardless of whether it is painting, sculpture, film, music or theatre — gives us the ability to safely experience the more or less unwelcome but necessary parts of life. The sad parts, the lonely and depressed moments that may or may not come.
To experience art is to have a conversation with it and with ourselves in a safe place, where we can really immerse ourselves into the depths of our soul, only to come back a bit stronger, a bit more content and without fear of such a venture taking a long-lasting toll on our mental or physical wellbeing.