What's the point of a painting?

Objects of contemplation

On my wall hangs a very special gift. A painting by my painting teacher, John Gordon, given to us on our wedding. I look at it every day.

There’s a big difference between seeing a painting once and having it on your wall, in your room, hanging out with you every day. And yet another difference between seeing a painting in a photograph in a book or on a screen and seeing it in person. I remember when my parents took me to see Starry Night when I was a kid, and I walked away thinking, “That was more of a sculpture than a painting.” It was practically three dimensional compared to my primary visual experience at the time, which was a Game Boy screen.

When I say I look at it every day, what I really mean is I happen to see it every day. Or maybe even more accurately, it is seen every day, in the passive voice. It’s not an active looking or observing or studying or thinking. It’s not like going to the museum, standing across from the frame and canvas in what one of my art teachers called the “art stance” (you’d recognize it—leaning to one side, one arm crossed, the other on the chin, a slight furrow in the brow, ready to utter a “hmmm” or an “ah” at any moment) and pondering the history, context, techniques, and the artist’s meaning or message of the painting. Reading the little card with the title, the year, and an interesting fact.

No, it’s more like the thing my eyes rest on whenever my mind wanders off in contemplation. The painting is an object of contemplation. It doesn’t require direct, focused attention, and it doesn’t expect action or useful purpose. It is a place for passive, leisurely perception of things as they are. It is infused within and expands the scope of our perceptions through a background low simmering presence, day after day.

Yes, it’s a decoration, an ornamentation that makes the room it’s in more alive, more whole. It’s a beacon of the Quality Without a Name, a passage of wholeness that encourages wholeness in us—a reminder of what can be. That is its usefulness—its consistent, quiet yet alive presence. There is a living relationship between the painter, the painting, and the people who hang the painting on their walls. The painter’s careful and spontaneous observations and recording of their perceptions, embedded on the canvas, now encourage us to carry on with the same care and liveliness. Someone, somewhere took whatever time they had to create this picture, and it’s an invitation to us to join them in sensitive openness to our lives.

And what of museums? The houses of public art? Well, the answer is clear—go frequently. The first visit to a museum, it’s like visiting a new city. You go in with a plan. Maybe you go in open minded, but also with some questions and some goals. There may be specific special exhibits or permanent collections you want to explore. It’s a bit like an in real life social media feed, an all-you-can-see feast of visual appetite. Once we get visually fatigued, it's easy to start walking through a museum the way mindless scrolling happens. It might be best to limit visual activity in the couple days leading up to a museum visit, to not wear yourself out before you get there.

The second, third, or fiftieth time, the pressure of the first visit is lifted. You might find yourself willing to wander a bit more, with no plan at all. Or, you might find yourself revisiting favorite pictures like old friends—paintings you’ve seen a dozen times, but never tire of returning to. And you might find yourself noticing something in a picture you’ve seen many times but never quite caught on to before. It catches your eye, and a detail is revealed that could only come with multiple passes, like suddenly noticing an interesting building in your neighborhood you never even noticed before in your daily routine. Whatever may happen, the visit to a museum becomes a ritual, a routine, rather than a mission to complete.

If you’ve spent much time in this virtual workshop, with its dusty shelves and un-dusty workbenches smooth with the shine of frequent wear, you’ve probably noticed a scattering of half-finished paintings and websites around my corner of the shop. I’m wondering what paintings as an object of contemplation, as a quiet background presence, would look like on a website. Websites are all about active looking, browsing, searching. Where’s the place for resting the wandering mind on the texture of a brush stroke? Where are the online galleries we return to again and again like familiar museum halls? I’m not sure, but I hope to experiment with web-places like that. Until then, my feet are headed to the museum… and I leave you with a request: please, show me the art on your walls!

I seek the doors of museums compulsively, to be close to the marble and the canvas, the way I seek quiet solitude at the end of a long day.

The Length of Humanity