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On the Art of Seeing

“The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)”

– C S Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism


I once heard this story:

There once was a wealthy businessman who, wanting to improve his various business ventures, hoped to get into the world of rare stones and the like. Specifically, he was interested in jade.

After a little bit of research he hopped a flight to a foreign country where he knew there was a well known Jade expert, an old man who had become quite rich himself and who agreed to teach the businessman everything he knew about jade for $2000. So the businessman showed up at the door of the old man on the morning of his visit’s second day.

The old man led him into a study, directed him toward a plush leather chair next to a comfortable fireplace and a coffee table. Then, without saying a word, he opened a luxurious safe, pulled out a piece of rolled up felt in which were carefully placed several pieces of jade. The old man set them upon the coffee table and, still without saying a word, left the study. Ten minutes passed and the businessman assumed the old man must have had a phone call. Soon thirty minutes had passed, then forty-five minutes, and soon an hour had gone by. Suddenly, the old man walked back into the study, picked up the jade, carefully wrapping it in the felt again and placed it back into the safe.

With that, the old man directed toward the door and the businessman was shown out.

For a week this kept up, much to the businessman’s dismay. Each day he was led into the study, and each day the old man placed jade in front of him and left the room. Each day he would return upon the hour, replace the jade in the safe, and show the businessman the door. Needless to say, the businessman was unhappy – indeed, he was slightly shocked at the lack of interest the old man was putting in him.

By Friday, the businessman was determined not to pay the $2000 for such a shoddy education. He was determined to speak up. And so he did.

That afternoon when the old man returned to the study at the end of the allotted hour, the businessman suggested rather gruffly that the old jade expert was doing him a great disservice:

“Here you are,” he said, “expecting me to pay you $2000 for a solid education on jade and all you give me is 5 hours of solitude. There’s no way I’ll be paying you for this kind of wearying, listless education. I came all this way for what? To be played games with by an old man? No, I don’t think so. You have done me no good. And to think I was told you were an expert! And then today! Today you present low-grade, poor quality jade!”

“Thank you”, the old man responded, “that’ll be $2000.”


In his classic work of meta-criticism, An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis offered the quote you see at the top of this post. He suggested that, as “experiencers” of art, we must be willing to, first and foremost – and indeed above all – enter into a work of art, allow it to wash over us, so to speak; we must first surrender to it and allow it to speak and breathe and do and be as it was created to be. In other words, we must first see it. Until we have done this, until it has done this, any value statement we might be tempted to apply to it is meaningless.

These words are as needed and poignant now as at any time in the history of the arts.

Never mind the relativism so rampant in much of modern art theory, many of us have become – as members of a fast-food-paced, drive-thru dependent, pragmatist culture – aesthetic utilitarians. That is, we are concerned with the aesthetics of a work art only so long as the work fulfills a personal purpose or pleasure. Certainly this purpose could be simply to offer or create some sort of visceral, personal, emotional experience. But to view art simply for this purpose is strictly utilitarian and there’s no denying it. We do a great disservice to a work of art (not to mention the artist) and any sort of potential meaning dwelling therein when we approach it with such self-centered motives.

All art necessarily exists within the context of a place and time. On one hand the place and time in which it was created, but also the place and time that it is meant to depict.
And yes, of course, it also exists within the context of the place and time in which the experiencer exists and in which he is doing the experiencing. A utilitarian approach to art is almost always concerned only with the last of these contexts and when it is actually concerned the with first two contexts it is concerned only inasmuch as said contexts help to heighten or enhance the way in which the work of art can do a personal favor for the viewer.

I fear that we, as individuals and as a culture at large, have become so absorbed in this form of aesthetic pragmatism that we have lost to ability to see, to observe, to let things be. We are consumers and adapters and movers and are therefore not very patient. And, without a doubt, Lewis’s model of artistic experience demands patience: it demands eyes and ears and senses willing to work, willing to be challenged. But, I think Lewis would suggest dreamily, if we are indeed willing to put in the necessary effort we will be rewarded for all that seeing, all that watching, and waiting and letting things be. He would promise, I think, that we will be introduced to worlds and ideas and places and adventures far beyond our own imaginings. We will learn to wonder, a wonder created by the collective consciousness of centuries of voices, a wonder at being and seeing and doing – ideas and actions that are mysteries themselves.

Naturally, when we become utilitarian consumers of art artists will begin to create art easily consumed. Looking for art that is purely… well, anything? Looking for a quick fix?You can find just about anything to float your boat, the way YOU like it, the way you would have it float. Often in the same piece of art at the same time.

Where is the wonder in this approach? There may be momentary satisfaction, but there certainly won’t be wonder to feed the soul. As Lewis famously wrote elsewhere, we are like children who, when presented with the prospect of a holiday at the sea are content making mud pies in a slum. As he profoundly wrote: “we are far too easily pleased.”

Unless we learn to look we won’t see, unless we learn to see we won’t surrender, unless we learn to surrender we won’t truly experience the wonder of art and all the beauty and truth possible therein. Nor will we learn to determine what is beautiful and true and what is not. Discernment is contingent upon seeing well. If we can’t see two items clearly how then can we determine which is better? Of course, this is where value statements come in. Except we look closely and observe we can’t tell the truth of what a work is saying and therefore can’t tell the truth about its value.

And hopefully, therefore, as we learn to see we will learn to be less easily pleased.

Hopefully we will learn to wonder again.

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