Art by Lynda Lehmann
Linda Lehmann : What ‘Good’ Art Does to Us

Artistic Perspectives

What Good Art Does to Us

What makes a work of art singular or important is not its pretty, pictorial quality.

By Lynda Lehmann | Updated 9/6/15

On those occasions when a relative or friend has asked me why I think this or that (usually abstract) painting or drawing is pleasing or compelling or beautiful, I throw the question back at him or her. I ask, as gently as possible, "When you walk out the door on a sunny morning and say to yourself, 'My, what a nice day!,' do you proceed to ask yourself why it is so beautiful? Do you feel a need to enumerate the elements that comprise your experience? Is this splendid day made of 10 percent green grass tickling my feet and 40 percent fluffy cloud formations? Or is it 60 percent the sweet smell of new life unfolding into the fresh air? Or the gushing pink of the azaleas?"

No — it's my guess that you don't do that!

I could say, after a basic discussion of form and color, "Well, I love the way those dominating purple splotches lead the eye towards the light green plane, then dissipate in the circulating blues. And that darker blue area is so active, it's like the verb that carries the drama for all the surrounding, quieter forms. But that little orange area feels like a preposition, that provides the transition between the long strokes and their subordinate blah…blah…blah…."

To make another example: When you dine at a fine restaurant, do you evaluate the flavors that comprise your favorite food? Do you need to articulate the qualities that make the morsel of lobster in your mouth taste terrific? Again, I assume that the answer is "No," and that for the most part, you're just happy to be savoring its flavor.

In my opinion, the same principle applies to all forms of art. I think that what makes a work of art singular or important is not its pretty, pictorial quality. It is its ability to stand alone as a totality that springs with its own life from the page. As long as it displays an internal unity, it could be anything! This is where the artist's unique vision comes in. To people who ask why a particular piece of work is effective, I would say that when a work of art is good, our intuitive and sensory recognition precede our attempts to define the ingredients of its success. It's a visceral reaction, wherein our perceptual wisdom makes the decision for us.

I wrote in my article Art and Beauty:

For years I have been asking myself: "Just why is there beauty in the world at all?" Our need as a species to groom, to acquire, to procreate, to hunt and gather, to stake out territory, all come from the survival imperative that has impelled us through the ages. But in addition to these more obvious needs of the human condition, there is a universal recognition, pursuit, and enjoyment of what we call "beauty." Though the apperception of beauty varies according to time, culture and temperament, it nevertheless is pervasive and universal. Whether there exits an objective validation or proof for the idea of beauty matters not, for if the perception of beauty is universally wired into our senses and intrinsic to the human mind, it exists as powerfully as if it had an objective life outside of us. The effect is the same: a compelling and powerful moment of arrested perception that illuminates our thoughts and impressions with an image, either natural or manmade, that moves us inexplicably.

That is what good art does: it seizes our attention and informs our thoughts and impressions with an image, in this case, manmade, that moves us. The fun of making or viewing art is that it engages the eye as well as the imagination. A painting IS a visual syntax with its own imperatives. I enjoy contemplating where my eye enters a piece, how it moves through the composition, experiencing the structure and nuances as one would savor a sentence that is poetically wrought.

This does not mean, however, that I have to analyze every piece to appreciate it. I know what I like, and with some thought, I can usually articulate why. Sometimes the why boils down to "because it's beautiful," and I don't feel the need to elaborate beyond that. What I try to convince others of is that they don't have to justify why something resonates with them. I respect that the perception of beauty differs from person to person. What bothers me is when I have to try to validate all but the most saccharin scenes or dedicated realism. It seems to me that many people are just habituated to having a closed mind and very formulaic, preconceived notions. They need images that they can easily identify with and digest. They don't want to be intellectually or perceptually challenged. To me, this is like wearing the same shirt every day of the year because its familiarity makes you feel safe!

I know beauty when I see it, just as you do. And I know the universal experience of mystery and wonder and awe. If viewing someone's artwork does this for me, or if I feel an inkling of these emotions when I'm involved in my own creative process, this gratification is reason enough. I don't have to ask "Why…?" •

© 2006 Lynda Lehmann. All rights reserved.

Painting by Lynda LehmannAbstract Expressionist painter Lynda Lehmann studied Art Education at Penn State University and earned her BFA from Hofstra. More »
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