About a month ago, Wes Vander Lugt drew my attention to an article on the work of artist Guy Chase.
In the article, the author James Romaine differentiates between an ‘experience of art’, in which the viewer allows the artwork to enlarge the boundaries of her imagination, and ‘art appreciation’, in which the viewer judges the artwork according to her pre-existent criteria of what she ‘likes’. The former allows the artwork to act on and change the viewer; the latter cuts the viewer off from the power of the artwork. In an ‘experience of art’, the viewer says ‘Yes’ to the artist’s attempt to communicate with the viewer. In ‘art appreciation’, the viewer says ‘No’, unless the artwork fits within the schema of ‘good art’ created by her past experience.
The need for the viewer to say ‘Yes’ to the art, to let it act on her, instead of saying ‘No’, reminds me of two things: 1) the necessity of the ‘Yes, and…’ response in improv, which is the response which allows and prompts further growth and creativity; 2) C.S. Lewis’s insistence on the reader’s ‘reception’ of literature, allowing its spell to work on him, instead of ‘using’ it for a predetermined end (discussed in An Experiment in Criticism).
In order for the artwork to be fruitful in the viewer’s life, the viewer must be like Mary, giving her Fiat to the artist’s request to communicate new life to her through the spirit of the artwork. By saying ‘Yes’, the viewer lets the spirit of the artwork enter and create new life within her, so that when she goes away she bears the artwork’s Logos (Word/Symbol/Meaning/Message) within her. To use Lewis’s phrase, the artwork has created an ‘expansion of [her] being’.
Just as ‘Yes, and…’ in improv is generative, because the acceptance of an offer allows an improviser to build upon his performance partner’s creativity, so Lewis’s insistence on reception is generative, because only by accepting a story on the terms on which it is offered – as a story – can the reader receive whatever Logos the author is trying to communicate. If the reader refuses to receive it as a story, and instead tries to use it as a moral lesson or a philosophical treatise, he will kill its ability to generate within him the life that it carries.
However, the necessity of saying ‘Yes’ to the artist in order fully to receive the artwork makes the viewer vulnerable. How can the viewer be sure that the artist will not betray her trust, and force some deadly thing upon her which will instead drain her life? Artists must be aware of their responsibility to help and not harm their viewers and ensure that their art is life-giving.
Critics can help strengthen the bonds of trust between artist and audience through their explanatory role. When I first looked at Deluge, one of the paintings described in the article, I didn’t particularly like it, but once the artist’s intentions and methods were explained to me later in the article, I grew in understanding and affection for it. Just walking people through art they might not understand, gently and with love, helps them learn to receive the artist’s message and increases their willingness to replace their future ‘No’ with ‘Yes’.