At home, I have a book called “Annotated Art“. It is like an art appreciation course in a book, taking a group of famous paintings and showing you what makes them unique, what societal influences permeate the work, what symbols lie, hidden by time and changes, in each one.
It’s a picture book, not at all pedantic, and brings work to life, revealing a level upon level of understanding and appreciation. It was this book, many years ago, that helped me understand how little I knew about the art I love.
Even now, when I go to a museum, I go with the knowledge that no matter how much I may love or loathe a work, there is much below the surface I can not see.
This past May, when the woman and I were on our first honeymoon, we spent a day wandering through art galleries in Provincetown, Mass. THere was a lot of good art, but one gallery stood apart.
I don’t think the art was any better than the art in some of the other shops. It was good, but not better. Still, the art in this particular gallery was significantly higher than in the other galleries in town. What, I wondered, made this work worth more?
It was the back story. The gallery owner jumped right in and as we wandered through the rooms of paintings and sculptures, she regaled us with stories about the artists. She talked about the processes each one used to create their work. She gave us personal insight into each painter and sculptor. By the time we left, I felt like I knew these artists. I cared about their work. I appreciated their struggles. They had obtained more value simply by the process of getting to know them. That was kind of an ah-ha moment for me. Both as an artist, and as a person.
Particularly as a person.
We stumble through our lives passing people the whole time. Some of them are pleasant. Some of them are not. Many we hardly notice.
Too often, we are judgemental. I am not criticizing. It’s human nature. We make decisions about people based on what we see. Good or bad. It is something we have to do to live.
The problem is, we only see the surface. It’s just like only seeing a piece of art hanging on the wall. Without all the deep knowledge, we don’t have a full appreciation. I have long since lost track of how many times I saw a person and thought they were “X”, when, as the story unfolded, they were, not just “Y”, but something more like “K”. Nothing like what I thought.
There was pain there. Abuse in the background. Hidden illnesses. Unseen brokenness. Fears. Loss. Life Trauma. (wars aren’t the only thing that causes PSTD). I end up wondering how, and admiring that, they are living as good and full a life as they are.
People have become a wonderment to me.
Over the past decade and a half, I have come to understand that I rarely know people. I know the surface part they care to share, or dare to share. I have to assume there are layers after layers of things that drive and move and influence them and their behavior. Judging, I have come to believe, is useless at best, and harmful at most.
Today, I work hard to simply accept. I wait. If I accept, I find, people come to trust me with the rest of the story. And I can understand better. I seem them more fully, like a piece of annotated art. And in that process, people’s value grows. Not that I was dismissing them before, but that I come to see more of their value over time and over the slow revealing of that time.
So I rarely make quick judgments. I just listen and watch. What is? What isn’t? What lies beneath? Because there is always something beneath.
It has also affected how I experience museums. I love the art, but I watch the people at least as much. I wonder at their stories, their relationships, what they see in these rooms full of creativity. I people watch as much as art watch.
Because people are the real art.
Be well. Travel wisely,
PS – Totally unrelated story. A couple of years ago I had a booth at an art show in Pawlet, Vermont. My paintings are bright and tend to attract kids, who often drag their parents into the booth. One pair of kids started to drag their mom to the booth, but she firmly took them by hand and dragged them away As they left I overheard her saying, “We’re going to see the real art.” Such is the life of the abstract artist. But then again, doesn’t the same thing happen in the way we treat people? Sigh.