Don’t just stand there! Eat it!

So, call it a midlife crisis:  I recently got out my old guitar, its case covered with political slogans and names of punk bands, and tried my hand at a couple songs by Georges Brassens and Nick Drake. The crooning is okay, but the strumming is halting and clumsy, after years of not playing.  It occurred to me (since part of my mind is, subconsciously or not, always thinking about food) that a musical score is a bit like a recipe: the G chord is like an onion, easy to play and always in the pantry, whereas the F7sus4 is like those hard-to-find ingredients (place the truffles and fiddlehead ferns in warmed pistachio oil – puhleese) that certain recipe books sadistically taunt the would-be cook to try and find. Andando, easy and flowing, is how we do the prep work, staccato is like frying, and largo is slow-roasting (the mutton tagine baked at 250 degrees for four hours). Implicit in the recipe is the notion that if we follow it we will have a final product, song or soup, the way its creator intended it to be; it will sound (or taste) delicious. Of course, reproducing it can take a lot of practice, just like my ongoing attempt to master puff pastry, but the fact of the matter is that we have a map, a recipe, a blueprint.

This is different with the visual arts. The painting or sculpture is, so to speak, already cooked and we are invited to dinner. This is especially evident in the sculptures of Claes Oldenberg (who is a School of the Art Institute graduate) or in Dutch still lifes, but it is in fact true of all paintings.  Go into a quiet gallery and listen.  They are whispering to you: eat me, mange-moi, take a bite, i∫ mich; all invitations to a meal. Come as you are.

The problem is that sometimes museum visitors aren’t hungry or they’re not listening closely enough to hear the invitation. How many times have I watched bedraggled, bleary-eyed visitors trudging past paintings as if following an invisible track laid down along the perimeter of the gallery?   The spectacle reminds me of a crazy public health scheme from some twenty years ago (a friend doing her Ph.D. in public health would regale us with stories of penile injuries caused by vacuum cleaners and dissertations on subjects like grass skirt burns in Papua New Guinea): old people would be fitted out with harnesses, the harnesses connected with cords, and the cords connected to tracks in the ceiling,  thereby eliminating all chance of  falling as they ambulated around the prescribed trails in their rooms.

Visitors! Cut those cords, approach that painting, and dig in! Eating a painting, digesting it, making it yours is vastly different from looking at it. Seeing a painting is automatic: it is in front of us and our eyes capture the image. This is similar to feeling pain when touching a hot iron or hearing an ambulance as it screams by. In Art as Experience, John Dewey describes the distinction between looking at the painting and eating it as recognizing it (yep, it’s a painting alright) and perceiving it (creating an sensorial experience with it). Recognition is passive, we see the painting; perception is active and makes certain demands on us (Dewey describes it as an out-going of energy in order to receive and says that we have to plunge into the experience).

So, how to plunge?  First, be selective. I’ve interviewed countless visitors who find museums overwhelming. They are of the mind that if they don’t take a look (recognition) at almost everything that they have, in some way, let down the museum. Balderdash! Instead, go into a room and look around. Perhaps one or two paintings will appeal to you. Perhaps none. Choose only one or two and focus on them. (Would you eat out with every, single person in a given subway car or bus? I think not!)

Second, take your time. In Daniel Pennac’s book School of Evil students find themselves with the following assignment one evening: go home, do nothing for twenty minutes, and share your experience with the class the following day. The students are dumbfounded. Nothing? Not even music? Pennac does this to give them the taste of solitude and of silence. I think it’s the same with a painting: I’ve never had a satisfying experience in front of a painting in less than five minutes and the experience I’m talking about is impossible if someone is jabbering next to you. So, accept the dinner invitation and than settle down, alone, in front of your host.

Third, be present.  Think about the all the flavors and textures of the food.  Great paintings have multiple layers of pleasure, so chew slowly and with intention, so as to enjoy fully.  This means following a narrative if there is one and looking at the colors and forms long enough so that you begin to see patterns that either balance the composition (or intentionally tilt it out of whack). Back up and look. Go closer and gaze. Imagine what you might tell the artist if he or she were to ask your opinion about the painting.

Fourth, acknowledge the effort of the cook. Some of the visitors I’ve interviewed have talked about their awareness of and gratitude for the artist’s gift. Indeed, the artist notices an aspect of beauty (or life) and translates it,  intensifies it, and gives us the opportunity to see it differently. Marcel Proust writes of the gift of painter Johannes Vermeer in Time Regained, the last of in the series In Rememberence of Things Past:

There is no reason inherent in the conditions of this life on earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be fastidious, to be polite even, nor make the talented artist consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work, the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his body devoured by worms. Like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much knowledge and skill by an artist who must forever remain unknown and is barely identified under the name Vermeer.

Finally, indulge yourself that extra glass of wine during the meal, let yourself loosen up and give in; be seduced by the painting!  Every now and then I have an experience that approaches meditation: my mind becomes clear and focused only on the image before me, yielding perhaps only a few moments of plenitude, but leaving me replenished spiritually.  Sometimes this happens when looking at the most mundane of details (gifts) in a painting, such as silver sugar bowl in Fantin-Latour’s Still life, Corner of a Table. French philosopher Simone Weil describes this experience in almost Star-Trekien terms: When we come upon beautiful things […] they act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space.

In the end, the experience you construct with a given painting is utterly unique, a creative act that takes place between you and the work of art.  Some days it might be just a good salad or a nice sandwich, but hang in there, don’t give up:  a four-course meal and a bottle of Bordeaux may be heading your way.


I would like to thank two friends who, when they read the first draft of this piece, told me it was unclear and unfocused.  I practically rewrote it to get at exactly what I meant.  It made me realize that for me eliminating lots of prose (as opposed to simply rewriting) feels like having a big litter of kittens and having to drown half of them in a river because you simply can’t take care of them.  I wonder if a lot of writers feel this way?



, ,




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *