Only They Know What is Known

The Kiss (Lovers), oil and gold leaf on canvas, by Gustav Klimt. 1907–1908.

The eternal question(s): Does it matter what the artist intended? His or her background? His or her influences, research, working methods? Do these things matter when it comes to how an audience interprets or should interpret their work?

Yes and no and maybe and perhaps, in no particular order. As in, great works of art, at least, don’t require the acquisition of such knowledge (to be appreciated), though that knowledge may enhance the experience. It can also ruin it, or something in between. The continuum is there, with its myriad nuances and degrees. In short, only they know. The people on the canvas and in the museum. The encounter works for them or it doesn’t, typically.

Scholars and critics, of course, likely investigate all the whys and wherefores available, and draw inferences from that to make their judgments. Their biographies influence those inferences as well, and so it goes. It’s also likely that the longer they’re at it, the further and further they fall away from the initial gut reaction, the original impression — the first kick in the head, so to speak. And this saddens me. The jadedness at hand. The overthinking involved.

Some artists, writers, poets and musicians see those scholars and critics as their intended audience, so they expect this sort of thing. They actually crave it. But most don’t. Art history and tradition are filled with the sometimes angry dynamic, the occasional rage, the potential for brutal interplay between the opposing sides, resulting in a few ruined lives, more often than not on the artist’s side of the ledger.

“Everyone’s a critic!” is one of those old clichés that still has resonance, and its own sting from time to time. “My little sister could paint that!!” is another oldie but goodie. Actually, no. She probably couldn’t. The artist in question studied and practiced his or her art/craft for years or decades to arrive at that place that provokes the work in question. Your little sister, unless she, too, is an artistic genius/prodigy already, has yet to evolve in that direction. If for no other reason than to kill that particular cliché, deep knowledge of art history and the bio of the artist are welcomed additions.

But they should be used with care. As Goethe once said, roughly translated, “Know all philosophy, but keep it out of your writing.” This applies, I think, to audiences of the arts as well. A very tough trick to pull off, of course, but easier if one has a strong background in Taoism or Zen Buddhism, which brings in yet another layer or a thousand.

Prior to painting The Kiss, Gustav Klimt went to Ravenna, Italy (in 1903), where he studied the Byzantine mosaics of San Vitale. Gold, gold and more gold! Visions of the Sacred and Profane! Inside and outside the museum. Lovers there, lovers in his mind’s eye, then lovers on canvas. Sensuality where nothing like it had existed before. An eroticism all its own, provoking yet another continuum of presence and absence, anger and receptive joy, for this or that person, in this or that era. It amazes me to learn that some contemporaries saw this painting as “pornographic,” just as it amazes me still that James Joyce’s Ulysses caused such an uproar when it was set to print too.
All the wasted time!

There are other aspects to be discussed about this most unusual work of art. Until next time . . .

Only They Know What is Known
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