Every so often I go to DreamsTime (a stock image site) or DeviantArt and look at the pictures, just browsing to see what’s there. A number of authors and composers I’ve spoken with find especially Deviant Art to be a source of inspiration, kicking ideas into new directions, or inspiring stories to go with an especially fetching or unusual picture. My response is to give the speaker/writer a look sort of like the classical puzzled/intrigued Spock.
Because I don’t get it. They see stories. I see, well, not exactly dead people, but pictures. Flat, attractive or not, amusing or not, but pictures. I can’t see the stories in the images. But if you hang the picture on a wall in real life, I may sit for an hour studying it, falling into the painting or photo and imagining the tale behind the picture.
Perhaps because of my age (grew up pre-‘puter), perhaps my eyes, perhaps just my wiring, art on a computer screen has never resonated the way art IRL does. The same painting on the screen, say, like this:
(Which is an excellent file when you blow it up) doesn’t resonate. But I have sat on the bench in front of the original for half an hour, looking at the faces, studying the textures, wondering what he’s saying and what her response is. And later teasing a grad-school buddy (Mennonite) about “Hey, I saw a Mennonite wearing fur!” Now, granted, this is Rembrandt, and the original is larger than life-sized, so there is an amazing amount to see in the painting. But the same holds true for smaller, simpler works. Even art books, as much as I enjoy looking at the images, don’t hold me quite like art-on-a-wall does. They rank between art-on-screen and art-on-wall.
I was exposed to museum art as soon as I could be trusted not to fall into the fountain in the museum foyer. And I have been very, very blessed to see so much of the world’s great art in the museum, or to walk into the actual buildings (great churches, palaces). In a way, my approach to museum art is not that far from what Henry James talked about in his essay “The Virgin and the Dynamo,” comparing the reaction of visitors to the World’s Fair pavilion with a giant Corliss Engine in it to how medieval people felt when they walked into Chartres or the other great cathedrals. There is a reverence, a sense of awe, an immense respect (until we get to Dada and Abstract Expressionism, but that’s a whine for another day), an almost worshipful feeling that comes over me when I’m confronted with truly great art. And it doesn’t have to be an “Old Master” to impress me. There are some neat little genre paintings that rotate in and out of the displays in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna that I love to see. I’m a sucker for the western artist Tim Cox, and Charlie Russell’s work leaves me in awe.
I suspect there is some ingrained mental disconnect between my imagination and the screen. Art-on-screen is not as inspiring to me as to others because it is not “real.” It’s there, it’s neat, but it doesn’t really exist. The painting or photo or poster on the wall is real, and has the power to draw me into its story and inspire me to add my own tale to the telling. I envy, a little, the writers and composers who can be drawn into art-on-screen. Their imaginations are far, far richer than mine.