Spectatorship

What will we watch,
what will we listen to, read or look at?

Do we want the comfort
of the known, or approved?

Will we take the risk?
And, dare to journey far from the canon?

Travelling away from the known
is daunting and unnerving.

But, how else do we grow?
How else do we live?

In 1911, in Concerning The Spiritual in Art, Wassily Kandinsky discussed our pre-occupation with interpretation when looking at art. In his eyes, we appear to have an ever-present desire to discover the ‘meaning’ of a painting, which haunts and colours our engagement. Against this pre-occupation, he hoped that future artists might be allowed freedom to paint without such a burden:

“The spectator is too ready to look for a meaning in a picture… Our materialistic age has produced a type of spectator or ‘connoisseur,’ who is not content to put himself opposite a picture and let it say its own message. Instead of allowing the inner value of the picture to work, he worries himself in looking for ‘closeness to nature,’ or ‘temperament,’ or ‘handling,’ or ‘tonality,’ or ‘perspective, or what not…”[1]

Kandinsky’s point was that one should learn to stand beside the work of art and allow a flow to emanate from it rather than trying to contain the painting within a previously learnt system of concepts and theoretical constructs. As such, Kandinsky questioned our mode of spectatorship and asked us to reassess how we look at and encounter our world.

Jeanette Winterson, in her essay on Gertrude Stein in Art Objects, exposes this issue by presenting a thought experiment in which a writer tries to create something genuinely meaningful, not just bland and repetitive:

“Suppose there was a writer who looked despairingly at her readers and who thought: ‘They are suspicious, they are conservative. They long for new experiences and deep emotions and yet fear both. They only feel comfortable with what they know and they believe that art is the mirror of life; someone else’s or their own. How to smuggle into their homes what they would normally kill at the gate?”[2]

How does an artist get past this ‘conservative’ fear which, also, implicitly demands that art be subservient? How does one re-enchant the world of the child who, in a Kandinskian allegory, learns and acquires knowledge and hard facts about the fire that once captivated their imagination? The problem is that most people can’t entertain the idea of anything too radical because they are scared. Consequently, we want to stick to the safe comfort zones we have constructed for ourselves, reading straight-forward genres of fiction, listening to tried and tested classics and pausing in front of representational art when mooching around galleries. As Winterson describes, “we can feel safe with facts. You can introduce a fact to your mother and you can go out at night with a proven fact on your arm.”[3] The implication is that you daren’t introduce you mother to Francis Bacon’s ‘Screaming Pope’ or Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Far too risky.

For Winterson:

“The riskiness of art, the reason why it affects us, is not the riskiness of its subject matter, it is the risk of creating a new way of seeing, a new way of thinking.”[4]

However, new ways of thinking don’t come cheap, and there is often a cost to be borne, normally by the artist who gets misunderstood, ignored, or branded a charlatan. Sometimes, though, the cost is borne by the spectator or reader who realises the importance of what they have just witnessed, encountered or read. This is a worthwhile cost, though, because it helps them alter, broaden and shift their way of thinking, seeing or being. One hopes they will become wiser for the experience undergone. As Winterson said:

“When we let ourselves respond to poetry, to music, to pictures, we are clearing a space where new stories can root, in effect we are clearing a space for new stories about ourselves.”[5]


[1] Kandinsky, W. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Translated by M. T. H. Sadler, Dover Publications, Inc. New York, 1977, 48.

[2] Winterson, J. Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, Vintage International, New York, 1997, 49-50.

[3] Ibid., 49.

[4] Ibid., 52.

[5] Ibid., 60.

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