Post #1452 • February 8, 2010, 8:34 AM • 77 Comments
Whilst in New York most recently, my always gracious hosts gave me a copy of About Pictures by Terry Fenton. Get yourself one, and keep it handy for the next time some bewildered soul asks you an ingenuous question about art. Fenton, is his long career as an artist, museum director, and author, has clearly had to entertain countless such questions, as his answers to them have the sound of many hundreds of patient, kind revisions.
How can you tell the best works of art from lesser ones?
By looking. By comparing. By letting your own taste decide.
Remember, the good ones are seldom perfectly good, nor the bad ones utterly bad. But the better ones are more sustaining than the lesser ones.
Good art stays looking good. Mediocre art becomes something like wallpaper. Sooner or later it stops rewarding your attention. It gets taken for granted.
Good art nourishes your attention. It calls you back. It refreshes your eyes. It just looks good. All of its aesthetic "meaning" is contained in that. The real enjoyment of art comes from savoring the experience of it. Each work of art presents a different experience.
One could quote any number of gems.
Really good pictures come across as presentations, as gifts. Lesser ones are more like demonstrations.
Is there a right way or a wrong way to look at a picture? There's no secret method, apart from keeping your eyes open and keeping and open mind. The first is easy. The second isn't. ... Sometimes, people mistake recognition for appreciation. They think they like certain pictures because they've seen reproductions of them or pictures like them, or they recognize the subject matter.
Trust your eyes. Trust your instincts. Don't analyze. Let the picture come to you.
Fenton invited us into his studio when we rolled through Saskatoon in 2008. (Honestly, we more or less invited ourselves, but he received us warmly.) He's making excellent paintings, one after another, of the incomparable prairie landscape of Saskatchewan. Afterwards we talked, over Chinese food, about his long career, Greenberg's visits to the region, and the thankless work of museum direction. He also knows the kind of political, philosophically ruthless creatures who have moved into power in his absence. Given the indoctrination that these people would like to foist upon the art-viewing public, About Pictures could act as a tonic, as a plain-spoken, eminently sensible invitation to look at art that, with any luck, will cause later assaults of convoluted wall text to bounce off.
This book also offers delightful revelations for those of us who have been pondering art for a long time. He explains why pictures are usually rectangles. Why indeed? I never bothered to ask, and didn't have a good answer until I read Fenton's. (In short, because walls are usually rectangles.) He also does a better job explaining the aesthetic differences, generally, between paintings and photographs, and between real works and reproductions, than anything I've read to date.
You may have a bit of trouble obtaining a copy, as Hagios Press describes itself as "a regional publisher with a national reach" with a "focus on fine works by Saskatchewan writers." Persevere. Your effort will reward you with eighty handsomely produced, beautifully illustrated, well-bound pages of refreshing good sense about art.