What do you want from a work of art?

I met someone who sheepishly admitted that his favorite visual image was a landscape photograph from a calendar, which he had cut out and saved. He said that he loved it because it reminded him of where he had once lived during a good time of his life. The landscape lifted his spirits, made him feel good. It altered and enlarged his perspective, so that he viewed his present surroundings from a different vantage point. It changed his life.

This acquaintance felt funny about the image because it was a cheap reproduction of a clichéd scene. His discomfort was due to the knowledge that his choice was not a “great” work of art, and he was right; the image did not have the innate ability to project any qualities beyond the mere picturing of a certain physical situation, and only operated as it did for him because of a chance resemblance. He shouldn’t have been apologetic, though; the image was doing everything for him that a work of art should do.

His picture won’t do that for you or me, though; it only worked for him because of a personal and private set of memories, and very few of us have met Mona Lisa, or seen Venus surfboarding on a big clam shell.

I would like a work of art to move me around, to change me, to make apparent to me that there is more to the world and in the world than I had realized.

Perhaps art can be something as simple as a coming together of shapes, colors and textures so that, solely by their interrelationship, a gamut of emotion, or humor, or tenderness, or empathy is conveyed. For me, it is the sharing of another person’s mind, an individual response to our common human situation made manifest which truly touches me; not complexity, decorativeness, or mastery of execution.

Curiously, it doesn’t even seem to matter very much what the actual components of a work of art are - they might be something as tenuous as a scratched line on the surface of a cave wall, done by someone thirty thousand years ago – as long as those materials were crafted with honest sincerity. It is also beside the point whether the materials are new or have been used before, or how they were used – like Satie recomposing dancehall themes or Frost using an old Maine adage as a springboard for a poem. Such previous use, in fact, generally adds to the totality of the work, incorporating additional layers of history or meaning.

An artwork is a completely synthetic situation, a human artifact, totally the creation of the maker. No matter how realistic the depiction might be, it should never be confused with life. The maker is no longer present, and, in any case he or she has gone on to think other thoughts and to do other things. The artwork, then, is only a collection of inert materials, sounds or words, and though the analysis of means, materials or techniques might be intellectually interesting or enjoyable as a kind of side issue, they are also not very important in themselves. And yet, if the work has been instilled strongly enough with some bit of human emotion or insight, there is something inexplicable, something wonderful, and, in fact, something truly magical that occurs: the piece now stands and speaks for itself.

What more would you want from a work of art?

Keith Long
Paris, March 2003