Looking Comes First

Bruce Herman, Elegy for St Sebastian, 2004. Oil on canvas with gold leafed wood, 56"x36".

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis spins a yarn in which denizens of hell are given a bus-trip to the lowlands of heaven – presumably to offer comparison to their ghostly and miserific existence, and to tempt them to choose a better way. One of the visitors from hell imagines his legacy on earth a lasting memorial to his greatness as an artist. Forthwith our hellish artist friend is smitten by the paradisal scene before him, demanding paints and canvas be brought so that he can record his impressions. The gentle response from his heavenly guide is something like, “Here [in heaven] looking comes first.” Whereupon the hellish artist is so frustrated that his personal impressions lack preeminence, he heads for the bus back to hell, unsatisfied with heaven’s emphasis on God’s creativity over his own. Lewis’ call for the epistemic humility entailed in close observation of nature has inspired my own quest for an art education.

As a young artist searching for studio art training in the early 1970’s I was frustrated to discover that schools here in the States had almost all abandoned the curriculum of close observational drawing of the human body as a core requirement of studio education. Abstraction and the “conceptual turn” in art had already displaced centuries of tradition by the time I was old enough to apply to art school, and it was nearly impossible to find a program still emphasizing study of the nude. The traditional rationale for study of the unclad human form runs like this: we ourselves are human and of all visual phenomena our eye is most attuned to the human body. This makes drawing it a fitting test for hand, eye, memory, imagination, and intellect. If you draw a tree branch or distant mountain range with minor inaccuracies no one notices. But if you draw a nose or finger or even a kneecap a mere inch or so out of place the drawing looks malformed. So the standard for accuracy in rendering the human body is high and the need for close and careful observation at its most demanding in figure drawing. Moreover, the skill and insight gained in a rigorous study of the human form was seen as transferable to all branches of knowledge. Observation is the basis of every art and science, and the rigor required for studying the human figure equipped you for any knowledge pursuit.

I did eventually find a school in Boston that was “hopelessly out of touch” with the then-current art world trends and was still requiring four to six years of figure drawing, anatomy, and the like.  Yet after six years of figure study I still felt woefully underprepared (that is, if I wanted to paint like Rembrandt or DaVinci). But painting like the old masters was also scorned in the 70’s – and by the time I entered graduate school in 1977, painting itself was declared “dead”. I wasn’t too alarmed. The postmortem on God had been issued a century earlier and God seemed to have survived.

To my way of thinking, the discussion of what might be a foundational prerequisite for studio training is still to this day in need of resuscitation. It seems odd to me that the concept of close visual inspection as a requirement for art training is now questioned. I am not cranky about this – I am simply registering what seems an impoverishment of our current cultural moment.

T. S. Eliot, in Tradition and the Individual Talent, writes: “Some one said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”

The same might be said of the dead painters. Their consummate skill in close observation of the human form, of the effects of light, of space and color and the texture of things engenders in us a deeper appreciation of this world of wonders in which we live. If we live inside our heads only, we lose that connection to earth, to the thingness of things and our lives can become insubstantial, gnostic. We risk becoming estranged from the infinite variety, intricacy, and wonder of the created universe.

Close visual knowledge of the human body is no safeguard against alienation from our environment, but it can be a means of honing intellectual and perceptual acuity – an acuity that is applicable to a host of other sorts of human undertakings. Yet why study the nude human form? Well, the simple response is that you cannot draw what you cannot see, and after teaching figure drawing and painting for thirty years I still find the human form boundless, unfathomably rich in meaning, and ultimately mysterious in its beauty and complexity. Here, as in Lewis’ imagined heaven, looking comes first.  There is nothing that God has created more worthy of careful study than the human body. And though the distinction between “naked” and “nude” may seem like casuistry at first glance, I believe there to be a great distance between the pornographic gaze and the eye of an artist of faith.  I honestly believe that art, like medical investigation, can minimize the potential for the illicit gaze, bringing the artist of faith into closer communion with both creation and its beneficent and extravagantly generous Creator.

Beauty is momentary in the mind – the fitful tracing of a portal; but in the flesh it is immortal.

The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.

                                             Wallace Stevens, from Peter at the Clavier


  • Bruce Herman is an artist and educator, serving as Lothlorien Distinguished Chair in Fine Arts at Gordon College (http://www.gordon.edu/). His art has been published and exhibited widely, both in the States and abroad in Italy, Japan, Israel, England, and Canada -- and his work is housed in many public and private collections, including the Vatican Museums in Rome, the Armand Hammer Grunewald Collection in LA, the Cincinnati Museum of Art, the DeCordova Museum, and many others. (for more information visit his web site: http://bruceherman.com/ )

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  1. says: Jim Watkins

    Hi Bruce,

    I just posted a comment on Philip Archer’s post for this week about his suggestion that art education is learning the discipline of looking. I was curious to ask you the same question that I asked him. Both you and Philip connect the sensory aspect of making art to Christian theology, which is very appropriate given the doctrines of creation and incarnation. Archer suggested that spirituality is an important component of the Leith School of Art, and so I wondered about the relationship between looking and spirituality in the visual arts. In other words, is the discipline of looking also a spiritual discipline, and do you encourage your students to view the more physical and sensory aspects of their work in terms of spirituality? You have already, in fact, suggested such a connection when you wrote: “I believe there to be a great distance between the pornographic gaze and the eye of an artist of faith.” It seems to me that a lot could be unpacked from this statement.

    Thanks so much for this very excellent reflection on painting from the human body, and I look forward to any further thoughts you may have!

  2. says: matt ballou

    just to jump in on what jim and bruce are saying above, i think the spirituality of looking is found in it’s proactive, receptive, determined attempt to explore the reality of being-ness. non-spiritual looking would be the opposite to me: passive, unresponsive, lackadaisical and limp.

    what’s interesting is that i think spiritual looking is both intensely personal AND other-focused. once an artist is “in the zone” of deep engagement with their subject they forget about themselves, and the ego is subsumed. the artist’s intention is projected toward the subject upon which they look at and the work becomes an artifact of the artists engagement with that subject. this is, to me, something amounting to a consummate spiritual state.

    when i work from the figure in my own art-making or in the classroom with students, i attempt to usher in the sort of spiritual, selfless looking. the result is a holistic contemplation on the nature of embodiment and being. it’s so easy to see the difference between this and prurient, pornographic looking. that sort of looking is passive, self-focused, aimed entirely inward and not meant to recognize the beingness of embodiment. it is, by necessity, essentialized and fragmentary – reducing the body to parts and locations meant for internal, personal self-stimulation/gratification rather than communal contemplation of wholeness and inherent meaning…

  3. says: Bruce

    Thanks Jim & Matt. I think the analysis offered by Matt (active/selfless over against passive/self-centered) is dead-on. The Greek root in the word pornographic refers to illicit self gratification–which has no grounding in relationship or commitment. The authentic artistic act (even when unaccompanied by faith or godly motives) is essentially relational — not self-centered. (I’m not implying that artists are any less self-centered themselves, just that the artist’s gaze is more active and other-interested in order to achieve authentic response to the thing seen.)

  4. says: Jim Watkins

    Matt and Bruce, after reading your comments I was reminded of a recent book by Janet Soskice called ‘The Kindness of God.’ One of the essays in the book is on the spiritual discipline of paying attention. She suggests that paying attention (and she even writes specifically about painting at one point) is a helpful counterpoint for spiritual disciplines that are centered upon achievement, and upon accomplishing certain tasks. It seems to me that painting (and perhaps any of the arts) remind us of the importance of paying attention, and that the Christian life is not simply about achievement. I think that your (Matt and Bruce) suggestion that the artist’s gaze is other-directed (and so not simply a matter of self-gratification) fits very well with Soskice’s essay.

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