It is always interesting to listen to comments people make about paintings. At the Ludlow Art Society Summer Exhibition this year I found myself stewarding with a man who was the husband of one of our members and not himself a painter. His low opinion of one of our member’s abstract paintings led to a dialogue which went something like this:
Steward: “What on earth does that represent?”
Me: “Well it has a title – what does it say?”
Steward: “‘Gone in 3 seconds.’ How was I supposed to know that just from those splashes of paint.” Then reading the title of the next one: “‘Caves – Dan yr Ogof’ That doesn’t look like a picture of caves to me.”
Me: “Do you listen to music on Classic FM?”
Steward: “Yes – I enjoy classical music.”
Me: “Well when they play the theme from ‘The Armed Man’ you just sit back and enjoy the sounds you don’t think of a soldier kitted up with military hardware. So why not just enjoy the paintings’ subtle colours, marks, and textures because all those qualities are there when you look at a good figurative painting.”
Steward: “Well I expect pictures to look like something recognisable.”
So I left him unappreciative and unconvinced.
This little dialogue confirms the notion that for most people the pleasure they get from looking at pictures derives from recognition. If they do not immediately recognise the familiar world of experience with the marks on the canvas they are puzzled. This is a problem for artists because we are trained to be selective and to exploit artistic qualities of line, colour, and texture to communicate with the viewer. You have a better chance of engaging the viewer if you start from something observed in the world of everyday experience. Working from the more esoteric domain of pure imagination is likely to leave most people confused.