The Art of Seeing - and the Seeing of Art

Article excerpt

I suppose it's the fruit of a misspent career. It's certainly the result of looking at a good deal of art.

If I see a magpie perched on a five-bar gate in a snow-filled but sunny landscape, I just can't help thinking of Claude Monet.

If I see billowing clouds scudding across a blue summer sky, I think of John Constable.

If I see a man in a bowler hat (though I admit this is a rarer sight these days than spotting a coelacanth, unless you happened to see the remake of "The Thomas Crown Affair"), I think of Rene Magritte.

An enigmatic smile - Leonardo da Vinci. Irises - Vincent van Gogh. A long waterfall - Hokusai.

I am not trying to name-drop; I'm just stating a fact. It's merely a description of something that has happened to me. I'm fascinated by art - by pictures and prints, sculpture and photographs and drawings. Some people leap into song unexpectedly, moved perhaps by a June moon or a blackbird singing in the dead of night. Some hum symphonies whenever possible. I've known people who can recite lines of a poem at the mere prompting of a first word or two. Me, I keep noticing art everywhere in the mundane visible world. I can't stop myself.

I am not apologizing for this strange trait, although I am aware of the need to keep it to myself a lot of the time. I wish I didn't have to. If art isn't something shared or sharable, most of its point vanishes. When I am on common ground with some other art enthusiast, we have a ball.

This is one of the best reasons for art galleries and museums. They are forums. Discussion shops. Places of mutual enjoyment or debate. People who never visit them, almost it seems on principle, like to imagine they are crusty, dusty, and virtually empty places. I have been going to them for years and have never been in a deserted one yet. Today, more than ever, they appear to offer people rare and rich experiences.

When the Tate Modern opened in London, it became, quite astonishingly, a fashionable place to visit. You could hardly move around it for the other people - and it's a massive former power station. It was very far from quiet. Loud discussions and arguments on every hand. I kept bumping into people who said they had never been near a museum before and had thought that "modern art" was simply mad. They were having second thoughts, and were not ashamed to say so.

But when I am talking to a stranger anywhere other than in a gallery, I try a gently insinuated mention of a well-known artist if the conversation turns in that direction, and watch out of the corner of my eye for a hint of recognition or interest. If there isn't, I steer the subject elsewhere.

There still seems to be a lot of inverted snobbery about art. The media, eager to achieve what it thinks is the common touch, too often reflects this attitude. If you mention art, or an artist, except perhaps as a joke (Van Gogh's ear is ideal), you may find yourself accused of giving yourself airs. It is as if we believe that to be educated is to be socially divisive.

The idea dies hard that art enthusiasts and collectors, dealers, curators, and even artists themselves are pretentious, incomprehensible charlatans. Some undoubtedly are. But many whom I have met and known are not. Instead, they find the world of the imagination a rich exploration; and the world of observation, informative. To them, the investigation of color and form, shape and pattern, structure and abstraction is endlessly intriguing - and surprisingly accessible.

To me, art seems to deal with a vivacity of seeing and looking. About noticing. About not taking things for granted. About how we see the world around us. …