Essay / Misc.

Seeing and Understanding

Behold the head that speakethAll of us here at Middlebrow are spending the next couple of weeks working with Emmaus Forum, a summer program for Christian high school students. For this group, I temporarily remove my theologian hat and put on an artistic beret, introducing students to the world of the visual arts, lecturing on art appreciation, and leading a field trip to the Getty Center.

I think that if you learn to look at visual art, you develop receptive and interpretive skills that will serve you well in reading books, relating to people, and hearing from God. What matters is clearing your mind of preconceptions and receiving a message from outside. I try to teach the visual arts as a practice ground for exercising the powers of perception. Here at Emmaus Forum’s website is a video clip in which I draw the connection between seeing and understanding.

And here is a transcript of my remarks, in case you prefer reading to watching web video.

Well, my undergraduate major is in art; that was my first big idea for what I was going to do with my life, was “be an artist.” So I went to the state university and got a degree in art. Later I switched over to theology and teaching in the liberal arts. But the basic idea is the same, is what I’ve learned. When you’re confronted with a wonderful painting, your aspiration should be to understand it, to be able to just look at the paint on the canvas and understand what’s happening, what messages the artist is sending you –Instead of cheating and going to the little card that’s on the wall beside it, and hoping that someone will give you the cheater’s notes there on what this thing means.

We often do the same with books, we look at a book and think, “I suppose I could be the kind of person who knows how to read this, or I could flip it over and see if someone will tell me the meaning.” I think that explains partly why we feel cheated if we look at a great, or a large abstract painting and think, “My five-year-old could do this,” or, “there’s nothing here worth interpreting.” On the other hand, it’s why we feel something deep calling to us when we’re confronted by a masterpiece of art that seems to have more going on in it than we can comprehend. It’s the same as with a great text; the task of interpreting the signs in front of us is the same. It calls for the same posture of humility, and excitement, and engagement with the artifact.

The art critic John Ruskin said that the greatest thing any soul ever does on earth is to see something great, and tell someone else what they saw. That’s the same task in the visual arts and in interpreting texts. So when we’re trying to read a book that’s literally over our heads, that’s just beyond us, it’s the same as when we’re confronted with a painting that’s just more than we can understand, that seems to be going in more directions than we know how to hold together at once. If we can actually see it, and understand what’s happening in it, and then begin to explain to somebody what it is we’re seeing –either literally seeing (looking at a painting or a sculpture) or metaphorically seeing (by discerning with the eye of the intellect what’s happening in a text or in an argument)—it’s the same great task that Ruskin talks about: to see what’s really there, and to begin to explain to somebody what it is.

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