Art is to be experienced.
Quick, think of a piece of art: is it a painting? A sculpture? How do you treat that object? Do you envision yourself standing in front of it in a museum? How about hanging it over your sofa? Maybe you secretly want to touch the smooth marble while the guide averts his gaze in the gallery. Maybe it’s something your kid glued together for a class project. Perhaps it was the pinnacle of a journey of some sort—Stonehenge at sunset or Macchu Piccu through the haze. Close your eyes and envision the last time you came in contact with a piece of ‘visual’ art. Were your eyes enough to fully help you appreciate it or did you long to do more in order to understand that object?
To think of art as something merely visual or as something to be seen, even observed carefully, is to ignore its multi-sensory presence. To create a piece of art in any medium, an artist must feel the materials; he must combine them in a variety of methods that require him to mix the paint with his hands and a paintbrush, or to chisel away marble, or to shape clay, adding and subtracting a wet substance, letting it dry into a cohesive message. The artist cannot merely look at materials; she must engage with them using techniques that include sight, certainly, but also touch and hearing and instinct.
A poster of Monet’s water lilies will never give you the depth and heft of the paint he left on that canvas. You have to see it from across the room as well as from a few inches away in order to fully appreciate the way your eyes interact with the materials. The Statue of Liberty is far more compelling from a rocking boat, hazy and dirty in the distance while you silently recall her poem, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
We think of architecture as art, too, but it doesn’t translate well into two dimensions. I spent much of last summer enamored with the peace and tranquility of Assisi. A large part of that came from the juxtaposition of music and frescoes with architecture in a setting that permeates the psyche with goodwill and thanksgiving. The setting provides a cohesive sensory experience that stirs the soul’s senses in order to usher a little of the peace of Saint Francis’s legacy into the days of present-day pilgrims. Giotto’s art in that basilica would be enough to make me jump for joy if a saw it only in a museum, but its intended use is to enhance the experience of the faithful, inviting the pious and the weary into medieval chapels, calling us to prayer or thought or meditation.
My career as a student was capped off by a course this spring in Medieval Visuality. Its purpose was to examine ways that viewers in the middle ages perceived of vision in a cohesive, socially-constructed way. In other words, how did people comprehend art in the middle ages? From this, I’ve begun an exploration of the way people used art in the late Roman period and how this changed as they headed into the so-called “middle” ages. (The term medieval was, of course, applied much later). What makes something “medieval” as opposed to “ancient”? I’m interested in ways that early Christians and viewers in the third and fourth centuries used art. My next few years of research will be devoted to the ways that artists and patrons communicated with saints and managed to depict a deity that was invisible yet present in daily life. Objects played a variety of roles to these people: images on sarcophagi or in catacombs invoked the presence of unseen holy beings; they offered blessings and miracles; they told stories and offered hope of redemption. Images were seen, and they were used and experienced in myriad ways.
It’s time for all of us—art historians, students, naysayers, bankers, artists, travelers, people—to stop relegating art to the walls of society. The aspects of life that matter are the small encounters that stay in our memory—a cold beer and good conversation on the patio on a June evening, church bells ringing over a valley on a lazy weekend morning, bright colors that jump off a canvas to invoke the warmth of summer islands during a New York City blizzard. Art can give us these vicarious experiences; it enables us to navigate the wider world through perception and contemplation.
Tomorrow I set off for Cappadocia, the mountains of eastern Turkey, where Byzantine monks carved architecture out of the soft terrain in the tenth and eleventh centuries. My premise for this trip is a workshop on Byzantine art and architecture. My ulterior motive is to understand these structures from standing in and around them rather than from books. I simply cannot envision the rugged ‘lunar’ landscape and its abandoned monasteries without feeling the walls of tufa over my head. I will cap off the trip with a pilgrimage to Hagia Sophia. I know its images well—the mosaics, the capitals, the dome rising over the ring of light—but printed images are not the experience, and I long to stand in the hallowed shadows where Justinian rebuilt an empire after the Nika Riots and Empress Zoe recorded her gifts for posterity.
To this end, I have renamed my blog 34 Encounters. My journey in the upcoming entries will entail my experiences with art and architecture, my perceptions of objects that affect life and understanding beyond the visual. Please join me as I look at and breathe in and listen to and grasp at every crumb the middle ages have left for devouring. Bright and early tomorrow morning, I’ll be sailing to Byzantium on a big, silver bird.