Arises the question often: does one need to understand (that is, be learned in) “modern” or “abstract” art to be able to appreciate my pictures?
I have contended that abstract art was intended to speak directly to the subconscious, and are proof of the “primacy” of visual experience and the power of its impact on a person, with or without his knowledge.
It seems to me that people are confused by abstract art primarily because they have been accustomed to “understanding” pictures in a verbal way. I will try to explain this in part.
From a young age children are asked to identify what they see. And they are taught–this is a tree, this a bird, etc. The truth is, as I mentioned in another place, from the words of Rebbe Nosson of Breslov, of blessed memory, is that our sekel (intelligence) is far from grasping the reality of this physical world. It’s true that what we see before us is a tree, but we are very far from understanding anything about what it is that we see; the tree, for example. Therefore when we call it by name, tree; or even its true name ‘aitz’ or ‘ailan’, this is very useful and necessary but we must be careful not to be misled into thinking that we understand much about it. All that we can truly know about it is what the Torah teaches us about it.
Science can teach us about its behavior, or more accurately, how it appears to behave. Even though the power of wisdom and analysis is very great, and volumes can be written from observation and analysis on the smallest of Hashem’s creation, we must not be misled into thinking that the scientific process can reveal to us any essential truth, even of physical matter.
The conventions of men, though, commonly do not acknowledge this, and many people think and act according to their ‘knowledge’ obtained through observation of their own and of others. These ‘muddied pictures’ of reality are handed from men to men, and often accepted, more or less, as ‘truths about our world.’ As said above, these conventional understandings are actually far from truth; for even though the intelligence of man may seem to yield enormous treasures of knowledge concerning the ‘nature of things’, nevertheless one who will set his mind only to admit the truth, will readily reject any source of truth other than what is revealed to us through the Holy Torah. All other information that is collected will remain for him in the category of observations. One who is not able to grasp and maintain this understanding stumbles in darkness, accepting convention as truth. Furthermore, this acceptance will block him from seeing the truth when he is presented with it.
Therefore when someone sees an abstract painting they are often confused and say: “I don’t understand it.” They are actually admitting the truth, the picture is in contrast to their acquired understanding. (I don’t intend to claim here that every ‘abstract’ painting is an expression of truth or that it is produced from an artists grappling with truth, but rather that an ‘abstract’ painting that does stem from the artist’s grappling with truth may, nevertheless, confuse the viewer who feels that he is lacking sufficient ‘understanding’ in order to appreciate and connect to what he is seeing. What I want to suggest is that instead of thinking that there is a requisite understanding that is lacking, rather there is an obstruction of understanding steming from accepted conventional thinking as to what a picture is; that a picture is “of” objects that are “nameable” and therefore can be “spoken” about between people by these “names”…)
One who understands what I have mentioned above, that our grasp and understanding of what we see in this world is actually quite limited; for him, the world remains fresh and alive, almost entirely new. With one who is careful with himself and finds rest and security only in accepting true understandings into his mind and heart; in such a case, since we really know very little about what we see; therefore “the less we ‘say’ the better.”
Therefore it can be that if an artist would paint a tree as a single green line, for example, this can actually be a much more accurate and vivid representation of the seen tree, more than a precise detailed drawing! The green line can be expressing the idea: “all I really know is there is something in front of me which is very beautiful and awesome and the more I examine it the more I see its endless wisdom and awesome complexity, and at the same time it’s profound simplicity.” For me to give expression to what I see, in paint, I find that the less I “say” with the paint, the closer I am to expressing some truth about it. Greater than an aspect of truth of which I know about my subject is the portion of truth which I don’t know.
Further than this…one must understand much further than this. If I must provide some bridges for that blessed person who would choose to meditate on these works, yet the bridges are simply introductions, for the essence of the work is truly very far beyond what most anyone knows. Since if I am to say anything, the truth must be said; then it must be said that in truth, this work is very very far from the concept of most any human who is alive today. That I can say that they will be understood in the time of the Mashiach, may it be sooner than the blink of an eye, this is a safe statement; that it will be understood before then, only Hashem Yisborach knows.
Hashem wants to answer all our needs 13c