By Wylene Carol
“Oh, my god!” – usually the first words out of the mouths of my potential clients when I show a piece of Floyd D. Tunson’s art. It’s a genuine, spontaneous response – but ambiguous – and not the primal and involuntary reaction expressed by the body, especially by facial expressions. Even though viewers don’t necessarily know it themselves at that very moment, I know immediately whether they’ll likely buy that painting. These visceral reactions are anything but intellectual: They’re a reflexive response to the jolting of the senses, a la e.e. cummings, in Poem 28, on the chemistry of attraction:
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you….
But whether the viewer’s demeanor translates to kisses or curses, it is, nonetheless, the expression of an esthetic experience.
No doubt a psychiatrist or a neuroscientist could analyze the hell out of this communication between the art piece and the viewer – you know, who’s motivated and affected by what and why. But I’m not a shrink, and I’m interested in simply observing viewers’ reactions to a specific painting, photograph, or sculpture. In my efforts over many years to understand the nature of this experience, I often return to John Dewey’s Art as Experience, published first in 1934. Each time I thumb through this book, I spot a sentence or two that just nails it. Consider this Dewey declaration: “…it cannot be asserted too strongly that what is not immediate is not esthetic.” (p. 119). Indeed, the feeling comes first.
Since selling Tunson’s art is what I do, I’m especially intrigued by what a “like” is all about (Spare me, please, the meaningless Facebook “likes”). We all know the story that goes like this:
“I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.”
“Yes, Madam, and so does a cow.”
Well, being somewhat of an art bigot, I like to quote this little dialogue from time to time, but one thing it says to me is that a potential buyer probably needs to view an art piece more than once to know whether his esthetic experience is one of lust or of lust and love. If the initial reaction to the piece is positive, I can then shed some light on its history and on the artist, but I know that that none of my intellectualizing and pontificating about a piece is likely to influence a viewer’s gut response to it because the feeling that comes first is the actual esthetic experience. Whether a “like” or “dislike” is sustained over time and changes with the viewer’s life experiences – well, that’s quite another matter.
Just for fun, look at this painting by Floyd D. Tunson and see what feeling comes to you first. If you try to study, analyze, praise, or defend, the game is over, so don’t do that. Just look.
One reason contemporary art is such a challenge to even talk about – let alone accurately describe, thoughtfully analyze, and meaningfully evaluate – is, of course, that it’s all over the place. This post-modern version of “doing your own thing” is, at best, the freedom (and even responsibility?) for each artist to follow his unique creative impulses; at worst it’s “permission” to be stupid, i.e., to be trite, silly, and exploitative. Because the internet allows anyone, everyone to show off his work or simply “show off,” it’s no surprise that artists themselves are struggling with the dialectic between commerce and pure art. And it’s certainly no wonder that galleries, museums, cities, and collectors are confused about what is worth their attention and their limited resources. How is anyone to really know which artists or which works will stand the test of time? And, in this world of instant-everything, is time-testing is any longer relevant? Does it matter if an artist creates one or two great works but cannot sustain that level, let alone grow artistically, over time?
But I state the obvious. These dilemmas are hardly breaking news: Institutions face them every day. Nonetheless, if the visual arts are to become and remain vital for all segments of the population, I think they merit interrogation from many perspectives, one of which is that of the infrequent but sincere buyer of art.
As the representative for Floyd D. Tunson for nearly forty years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with clients with discretionary income but not necessarily enormous wealth who seek and truly appreciate guidance about buying a piece of art. When they approach me about a possible purchase, they often say, in effect, “I really love it, but I don’t know if I should buy it. It’s pricey.” Here’s what I tell them:
“Yes, indeed, this piece is pricey. If buying it would never feel good to you because it’s too much of a sacrifice, then you should not buy it. Blank walls are beautiful: They’re open invitations to something interesting. But obviously this piece spoke to you for a reason. Now that you’re here viewing it, you might ask yourself the following:
•What drew me to the piece?
•Is it complex enough to probably capture my interest and enrich my life day after day, week after week, year after year?
•What is the artist’s history?
•How would I feel if someone else acquired this piece while I was in the process of considering it?
• Am I interested in this piece, at least in part, as an investment? (Please say no. There is no guarantee it will appreciate. If you want it, buy it for what it brings to your intellectual, esthetic, and emotional life.)”
This approach is just one to help the client sort out his feelings, to know, say, if the kiss was just a peck on the cheek or if it was a juicy, full-mouth, irresistible invitation for more.