In a recent post I mentioned that Dylan enjoys art galleries. Actually I would go further: art is not only a comfortable medium for Dylan, his relationship with it seems essential. In galleries Dylan will stand for long periods before particular paintings, absorbed by the experience to the point of trance. At home I quite often discover Dylan standing stock still and silent, staring at a favourite print. This love of art is something Dylan is at times moved to share; our most frequent ‘conversations’ are about his favourite pictures.
Listening to an extract from Julian Barnes’ new book of essays, Keeping An Eye Open, on the Radio this week I was struck by his claim that ‘it is a rare picture that stuns or argues us into silence.’ For my son, whose world is mostly silent, the opposite is the case. In this post I consider a therapeutic approach to art and in a linked post I reflect on some pictures which move Dylan to words. In trying to understand Dylan’s response to art I ask whether there is something I might learn from his aesthetic about its therapeutic role in his life.
Recovered words, restored sight
Georges Braque, Barnes informs us, claimed that ‘great paintings need us to say nothing at all.’ Dylan, I’m sure, would agree; when he speaks about a painting it is from a place of joy, not need. What Braque had in mind is the explanatory voice which artists hope their work does not require. As Flaubert reminds us, as well as not needing us to say anything, ‘nothing needs to be said’ about a great painting. It is interesting, however, to watch people read accompanying text in an art gallery. In the Louvre with my daughter a few years ago I was astonished to watch a visitor focus on the explanations of paintings to such an extent that it was the text boxes she photographed rather than the paintings. It often seems to me that the majority of visitors read the accompanying caption before looking at a painting – and I could not claim not to have done this myself sometimes.
Grayson Perry, in the 2013 Reith Lectures, noted that our aesthetic is constructed by contexts such as family, education, nationality and religion and validated by ‘experts’ – artists, curators, dealers and critics. Thus as well as being guided by expert views, our response to art is shaped by what is usually a linear narrative through the socio-economic and political contexts from which it arose. Such organisation is helpful, Barnes claims in his essay on the visual arts, because the ‘conversation’ between successive movements is clear and helps us to understand innovation and shifts in beliefs and practices. When paintings are placed next to each other which are not in conversation, he suggests, the result is an ‘aesthetic squabble’ which can leave the viewer disoriented and confused.
Dylan is not swayed by such considerations. Although he responds to what Perry refers to as ‘familiarity’ (i.e. things he recognises), the broader social and historical context of a painting is of little influence and the views of others (whatever their expertise) of no interest. Perry tells us that curators and art dealers consider large paintings and red paintings of high value (based on sales and consumer demand); although one of Dylan’s favourite pictures happens to be quite large I don’t think this (or redness) is part of his aesthetic. Dylan really does plough his own furrow.
So when I visit a gallery with Dylan there is little point in my attempting to hold to conventional ways of viewing. Because text and sequencing are of no consequence to Dylan, the only thing to do is to follow his path. Thus my experience of the space is his: this room is skipped; this one we walk through backwards with eyes closed; in this room we look at one painting; we check everything briefly in this room; at the end of this space, we run twice from side to side; and here we sit down, on this bench, to stare at a favourite painting for as long as I will allow. We don’t read text boxes. We don’t follow any order except for the one Dylan has constructed for this gallery. In this way Dylan restores my sight and is, sometimes, stunned into words.
In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, thirteen year old Theo and his mother are caught up in a terrorist attack while visiting a museum. In the moments following the explosion (in which his mother dies) Theo impulsively takes his mother’s favourite painting – ‘The Goldfinch’ – from the wall. The painting will draw Theo into a world of violence and criminality but also serve as a vehicle for the longing he feels for his mother. Towards the end of the tale Theo’s Guardian, Hobie, reflects on the way a painting can take possession of us:
…you can have a lifetime of perfectly sincere museum-going where you traipse around enjoying everything and then go out and have some lunch. But…if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you. (p.849)
I think Dylan hears that whisper from the alleyway.
Therapeutic uses of art
Alain de Botton, in his book Art as Therapy and in his pioneering work at The School of Life, argues that we need fresh ways of thinking about our relationship with art. The problem with museums, he suggests, is that they tend to display art using academic and historical categories rather than grouping paintings according to their essential ‘function’. Art, he claims, has seven key functions: remembering; hope; sorrow; rebalancing; self-understanding; growth and appreciation. ‘A more ambitious, and beneficial, arrangement’ of paintings in a gallery, de Botton argues, would be one in which works were arranged ‘in line with the concerns of our souls, bringing together those objects which, regardless of their origins in space and time, address the troubled areas of existence. ‘ (p.91)
There could be a gallery named Tenderness to help us to understand what the quality is and why it is so hard to preserve in the conditions of daily life. We could meet Donatello here, but his presence would be subsumed under a higher heading and enriched by items from other parts of the collection. There would be space for Henry Raeburn’s portrait of the Allen Brothers, currently marooned in the British room, because it matters less that this work is by a Scottish painter of the European Enlightenment, as the caption tells us, than that it, like the Virgin and Child, has many important things to tell us about how to bolster the more delicate inclinations of our hearts. (p. 94)
When I encountered de Botton’s work it felt like a light bulb. Could this be what Dylan does? Is he curator of his own exhibition, using principles similar to those outlined in Art as Therapy? Although some of the thinking made me uncomfortable, it offered a possible way of understanding Dylan’s response to art. In particular I wondered if de Botton’s examples might help me to identify and understand the imagery which attracted Dylan. He has this to say, for example, about William Dyce’s ‘Madonna and Child’ (c. 1827-1830):
… Such an object is delicate with our longings. It knows that we might still need to be mothered, even though we are adults, and that we might still need a great deal of reassurance and kindness. So much of growing up is about becoming independent and getting by without the comfort on offer here. Being a mummy’s boy remains a stinging insult to our autonomy. This kind of toughness represents an exaggerated repudiation of an important need. The painting offers comfort by proxy. In our imagination we can get close to Mary without needing to give up the hard-won advantages of adult life (and it might help our identification that the baby looks about 27). In art, the longing that might otherwise damage us and undermine our claims to an adult identity, finds a safe and acceptable home. http://www.artastherapy.com/
This description illustrates the way in which the grouping of paintings by function is subjective and problematic; there is little doubt about the classification of Dyce’s ‘Madonna and Child’ as ‘Early 19th Century’ but we could challenge de Botton’s reading of the painting. While not convinced by his interpretation of the image I did find myself intrigued, not least because the Madonna is one of Dylan’s favourite images. In a linked post, therefore, I attempt to apply de Botton’s methodology to Dylan’s pictures and reflect on the possible ‘function’ and role of art in his life.
Julian Barnes (2015) Keeping An Eye Open: Essays in Visual Art. Jonathan Cape
Alain de Botton and John Armstrong (2013) Art as Therapy. Phaidon Press
Grayson Perry (2013) ‘Playing To The Gallery’, The Reith Lectures 1-4
Donna Tartt (2013) The Goldfinch. Abacus
Episode One of Keeping an Eye Open by Julian Barnes (BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, 22/06/15) is available at:
The photo of Grayson Perry is via the TES and the image of Julian Barnes’ book is via The Sunday Times.