The Paradox of Active Surrender: Jeanette Winterson on How Learning to Understand Art Transforms Us
By Maria Popova
I recently attended an event at which a celebrated public radio personality attempted to interview a celebrated artist. “Attempted,” because he clearly did not understand her work and the spirit from which it sprang. His attitude of not-getting-it wasn’t a storytelling device — the kind where an interviewer feigns amicable ignorance in order to include the audience in the finding out — but a petulant child’s fit. The fact that he is brilliant at his own work perhaps only confounded his frustration with not being able to understand her art, to connect with it. The event was painful to watch because the first task of a great interviewer is humility — sublimating his ego in the service of letting his subject shine; the second and more arduous task is understanding, which takes a deliberate investment of time, intention, and effort. It was painful to watch, but also shrouded in soft pity — endearing, because he was merely seeking to connect with her work and needed a sherpa in understanding it. His chief fault wasn’t so much doing it in public, without having first made those necessary investments, but in presuming that it was the artist’s duty to be that sherpa herself. (The artist, I should add, handled the situation with remarkable patience and poise.)
The task of the audience in witnessing such tragicomedy is not to judge but to seek to understand — not to add to the effrontery by flagellating the interviewer’s laziness of understanding with the audience’s own in turn, but to see what went awry and glean from that a larger insight about that delicate dance of giving and receiving, of mutual connection and comprehension, that is art.
That is why the incident reminded me of a beautiful essay by Jeanette Winterson titled “Art Objects,” found in her magnificent 1996 collection Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (public library), in which she illuminates with exquisite precision the many layers of misunderstanding that happened here, which also happen so frequently when someone issues a dismissive or critical denunciation of art from a deep place of I just don’t get it.
Winterson begins by recounting her own awakening to art after years of feeling no interest in the visual arts. “My lack of interest was the result of the kind of ignorance I despair of in others,” she confesses with hindsight’s lucidity. As she finds herself in Amsterdam, she also finds herself a stranger in a strange land in another way. Suddenly beholding that dormant power of art, she writes:
I had fallen in love and I had no language. I was dog-dumb. The usual response of “This painting has nothing to say to me” had become “I have nothing to say to this painting.” And I desperately wanted to speak. Long looking at paintings is equivalent to being dropped into a foreign city, where gradually, out of desire and despair, a few key words, then a little syntax make a clearing in the silence. Art, all art, not just painting, is a foreign city, and we deceive ourselves when we think it familiar. No-one is surprised to find that a foreign city follows its own customs and speaks its own language. Only a boor would ignore both and blame his defaulting on the place. Every day this happens to the artist and the art.
We have to recognize that the language of art, all art, is not our mother-tongue.
Winterson begins longing for a guide, “someone astute and erudite,” “a person dead or alive” with whom to “think things over,” and is gripped with the way in which understanding art doesn’t obey any of our familiar problem-solving methods. (Art, after all, is not a problem to be solved but an experience to be allowed.) She writes:
Art is odd, and the common method of trying to fit it into the scheme of things, either by taming it or baiting it, cannot succeed. Who at the zoo has any sense of the lion?
With that, Winterson considers the heart of that active surrender that art requires of us:
I do not believe that art (all art) and beauty are ever separate, nor do I believe that either art or beauty are optional in a sane society. That puts me on the side of what Harold Bloom calls “the ecstasy of the privileged moment.” Art, all art, as insight, as rapture, as transformation, as joy. Unlike Harold Bloom, I really believe that human beings can be taught to love what they do not love already and that the privileged moment exists for all of us, if we let it. Letting art is the paradox of active surrender. I have to work for art if I want art to work on me.
She finds her sherpa in the celebrated art critic Roger Fry and his “life-delighting, art-delighting approach, unashamed of emotion, unashamed of beauty” — a mind so singular that he became the subject of Virginia Woolf’s only biography. Fry, Winterson felt, allowed her to approach a work of art “without unfelt reverence or unfit complacency.”
Slowly, subtly, as she educated herself in the language of art, Winterson began to feel her way of seeing evolve. She echoes Tolstoy’s notion that art thrives on “emotional infectiousness” and writes:
What has changed is my capacity of feeling. Art opens the heart.
But art, Winterson observes, also takes time (that unfortunate interview increasingly gave the sense that time was the missing ingredient of understanding) and commitment. Among the essential obstacles that must be overcome before we can begin to appreciate art, she argues, is the experience of increasing discomfort. Noting that “ordinary life passes in a near blur” — which cognitive science has demonstrated convincingly — she asks:
When was the last time you looked at anything, solely, and concentratedly, and for its own sake? … We find we are not very good at looking.
We are also bedeviled by increasing irritation, which Winterson captures with wonderful humor: “Why doesn’t the picture do something? Why is it hanging there staring at me? What is this picture for? Pictures should give pleasure but this picture is making me very cross. Why should I admire it? Quite clearly it doesn’t admire me.” This notion of admiration reflected back, in fact, is entwined with the way in which our ego — like, perhaps, the anecdotal interviewer’s ego — is often what stands between us and the active surrender to art. Winterson writes:
Admire me is the sub-text of so much of our looking; the demand put on art that it should reflect the reality of the viewer. The true painting, in its stubborn independence, cannot do this, except coincidentally. Its reality is imaginative not mundane.
When the thick curtain of protection is taken away; protection of prejudice, protection of authority, protection of trivia, even the most familiar of paintings can begin to work its power. There are very few people who could manage an hour alone with the Mona Lisa.
But our poor art-lover in his aesthetic laboratory has not succeeded in freeing himself from the protection of assumption. What he has found is that the painting objects to his lack of concentration; his failure to meet intensity with intensity. He still has not discovered anything about the painting but the painting has discovered a lot about him. He is inadequate and the painting has told him so.
It is often said that art — some art, or much of art, or much of some of art — is an “acquired taste.” But Winterson’s central point is that art — all of art — is an acquired ability:
If I can be persuaded to make the experiment again (and again and again), something very different might occur after the first shock of finding out that I do not know how to look at pictures, let alone how to like them.
Art has deep and difficult eyes and for many the gaze is too insistent. Better to pretend that art is dumb, or at least has nothing to say that makes sense to us. If art, all art, is concerned with truth, then a society in denial will not find much use for it… We avoid painful encounters with art by trivializing it, or by familiarizing it.
In one of her most potent asides, Winterson laments our cultural mythology of art and money — that toxic notion that “art suffers the moment other people start paying for it,” that making money and making art are mutually exclusive — and returns to the wildness of art:
We are an odd people: We make it as difficult as possible for our artists to work honestly while they are alive; either we refuse them money or we ruin them with money; either we flatter them with unhelpful praise or wound them with unhelpful blame, and when they are too old, or too dead, or too beyond dispute to hinder any more, we canonize them, so that what was wild is tamed, what was objecting, becomes Authority. Canonizing pictures is one way of killing them. When the sense of familiarity becomes too great, history, popularity, association, all crowd in between the viewer and the picture and block it out. Not only pictures suffer like this, all the arts suffer like this.
Echoing Pete Seeger’s assertion that all artists are “links in a chain,” Winterson considers the ongoing dialogue between past and present, those infinite circles of influence of which all art is woven:
The calling of the artist, in any medium, is to make it new. I do not mean that in new work the past is repudiated; quite the opposite, the past is reclaimed. It is not lost to authority, it is not absorbed at a level of familiarity. It is re-stated and re-instated in its original vigor. Leonardo is present in Cézanne, Michelangelo flows through Picasso and on into Hockney. This is not ancestor worship, it is the lineage of art. It is not so much influence as it is connection…
The true artist is connected. The true artist studies the past, not as a copyist or a pasticheur will study the past, those people are interested only in the final product, the art object, signed sealed and delivered to a public drugged on reproduction. The true artist is interested in the art object as an art process, the thing in being, the being of the thing, the struggle, the excitement, the energy, that have found expression in a particular way. The true artist is after the problem. The false artist wants it solved (by somebody else). If the true artist is connected, then he or she has much to give us because it is connection that we seek. Connection to the past, to one another, to the physical world… A picture, a book, a piece of music, can remind me of feelings, thinkings, I did not even know I had forgot.
Echoing Oscar Wilde’s memorable notion that art requires of us a “temperament of receptivity,” Winterson writes:
Whether art tunnels deep under consciousness or whether it causes out of its own invention, reciprocal inventions that we then call memory, I do not know. I do know that the process of art is a series of jolts, or perhaps I mean volts, for art is an extraordinarily faithful transmitter. Our job is to keep our receiving equipment in good working order.
With this, Winterson arrives at the crux of our difficulty with understanding art and our tendency to mistake our misunderstanding for a failure of the art, to presume that our problem with understanding it is the artist’s problem — the heart of what went awry in that unfortunate interview. Winterson writes:
There are no Commandments in art and no easy axioms for art appreciation. “Do I like this?” is the question anyone should ask themselves at the moment of confrontation with the picture. But if “yes,” why “yes”? and if “no,” why “no”? The obvious direct emotional response is never simple, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the “yes” or “no” has nothing at all to do with the picture in its own right.
“I don’t understand this poem”
“I never listen to classical music”
“I don’t like this picture”
are common enough statements but not ones that tell us anything about books, painting, or music. They are statements that tell us something about the speaker. That should be obvious, but in fact, such statements are offered as criticisms of art, as evidence against, not least because the ignorant, the lazy, or the plain confused are not likely to want to admit themselves as such. We hear a lot about the arrogance of the artist but nothing about the arrogance of the audience. The audience, who have not done the work, who have not taken any risks, whose life and livelihood are not bound up at every moment with what they are making, who have given no thought to the medium or the method, will glance up, flick through, chatter over the opening chords, then snap their fingers and walk away like some monstrous Roman tyrant.
Winterson adds a reflection on the elements of subjectivity and our duty in factoring it in:
An examination of our own feelings will have to give way to an examination of the piece of work. This is fair to the work and it will help to clarify the nature of our own feelings; to reveal prejudice, opinion, anxiety, even the mood of the day. It is right to trust our feelings but right to test them too. If they are what we say they are, they will stand the test, if not, we will at least be less insincere.
When you say “This work has nothing to do with me.” When you say “This work is boring/pointless/silly/obscure/élitist etc.,” you might be right, because you are looking at a fad, or you might be wrong because the work falls so outside of the safety of your own experience that in order to keep your own world intact, you must deny the other world of the painting. This denial of imaginative experience happens at a deeper level than our affirmation of our daily world. Every day, in countless ways, you and I convince ourselves about ourselves. True art, when it happens to us, challenges the “I” that we are.
A love-parallel would be just; falling in love challenges the reality to which we lay claim, part of the pleasure of love and part of its terror, is the world turned upside down. We want and we don’t want, the cutting edge, the upset, the new views. Mostly we work hard at taming our emotional environment just as we work hard at taming our aesthetic environment. We already have tamed our physical environment. And are we happy with all this tameness? Are you?
The solid presence of art demands from us significant effort, an effort anathema to popular culture. Effort of time, effort of money, effort of study, effort of humility, effort of imagination have each been packed by the artist into the art.
And this, I suppose was the effrontery of the interviewer: his public admission of not having made the effort — of not having cared to make it. Winterson touches on what the deeper reason might be:
I worry that to ask for effort is to imply élitism, and the charge against art, that it is élitist, is too often the accuser’s defense against his or her own bafflement.
In a remark particularly ironic in this context, she adds:
The only way to develop a palate is to develop a palate.
The fashion for dismissing a thing out of ignorance is vicious. In fact, it is not essential to like a thing in order to recognize its worth, but to reach that point of self-awareness and sophistication takes years of perseverance.
The problem, she points out, isn’t one of personal failure but of cultural bias:
I am sure that if as a society we took art seriously, not as mere decoration or entertainment, but as a living spirit, we should very soon learn what is art and what is not art.
If we sharpened our sensibilities, it is not that we would all agree on everything, or that we would suddenly feel the same things in front of the same pictures (or when reading the same book), but rather that our debates and deliberations would come out of genuine aesthetic considerations and not politics, prejudice and fashion… And our hearts? Art is aerobic.
Winterson turns to what happens in that magical moment when a work of art is beheld with understanding, with active surrender, and enveloped by receptivity:
There is a constant exchange of emotion between us, between the three of us; the artist I need never meet, the painting in its own right, and me, the one who loves it and can no longer live independent of it. The triangle of exchange alters, is fluid, is subtle, is profound and is one of those unverifiable facts that anyone who cares for painting soon discovers… The totality of the picture comments on the totality of what I am.
As she considers how art makes visible “those necessary invisibles of faith and optimism, humor and generosity,” “the sublimity of mankind,” she peers into the depths of its essence:
We know that the universe is infinite, expanding and strangely complete, that it lacks nothing we need, but in spite of that knowledge, the tragic paradigm of human life is lack, loss, finality, a primitive doomsaying that has not been repealed by technology or medical science. The arts stand in the way of this doomsaying. Art objects. The nouns become an active force not a collector’s item. Art objects.
The cave wall paintings at Lascaux, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the huge truth of a Picasso, the quieter truth of Vanessa Bell, are part of the art that objects to the lie against life, against the spirit, that it is pointless and mean. The message colored through time is not lack, but abundance. Not silence but many voices. Art, all art, is the communication cord that cannot be snapped by indifference or disaster. Against the daily death it does not die.
Art is not a little bit of evolution that late-twentieth-century city dwellers can safely do without. Strictly, art does not belong to our evolutionary pattern at all. It has no biological necessity. Time taken up with it was time lost to hunting, gathering, mating, exploring, building, surviving, thriving. Odd then, that when routine physical threats to ourselves and our kind are no longer a reality, we say we have no time for art. If we say that art, all art is no longer relevant to our lives, then we might at least risk the question “What has happened to our lives?” The usual question, “What has happened to art?” is too easy an escape route.
Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery is a transcendent read in its totality — Winterson goes on to examine such subjects as imagination and reality, the ecstasy of words, and the semiotics of sex. Complement it with her provocative reflections on adoption and belonging and time, language, and how art sanctifies the human spirit.
Published October 27, 2014