Human fingers have never had so much information readily available at their tips. Almost anything we want to know lies behind the click of a button or the tap of a finger; the internet enables us to access interviews, scandalous photos, and live-streamed chats from all over the world. At breakfast we listen to the radio, on the tube – a podcast, there is constant chatter in our ear as we ingest others’ opinions, thoughts and advice. Any fleeting moment must not be wasted – or so we are told.
But can you know too much? Has our society become one of intelligent consumerism?
We might believe we are more intellectual if we read more reviews and take more online courses, but is there not a certain beauty to naivety?
‘…knowing too much about other people puts you in their power, they have a claim on you, you are forced to understand their reasons for doing things and then you are weakened.’ – Atwood
In an age when knowing about others is at the root of what it means to be human, Atwood raises an interesting point. Especially when it comes to understanding art.
You’ll often hear people wandering around galleries debating the meaning behind the art they are gazing at - the inspiration behind the artists’ motivation - especially in the sporadic shapes and colours of abstract work.
This is when people research. Eager not to feel out of their depth, they investigate the life of the artist, the schools, circles, and friends they obtained, countries they took residencies in, and interviews where they talk about their work, in a desperate attempt to impress others with their knowledge. Or, perhaps it is to put their minds at ease so that they understand the subject they are looking at, and can justify that the ticket they purchased was not wasted.
But, as Atwood claims, the more we know, the weaker we become.
It is common knowledge that in the business world people are never their own shepherd. Like sheep, they flock. Moving to the new trend, the information they know will get them into the inner circle, allowing them to succeed and make the goal: money.
In modern years, the art world has been no different. The only distinction is the name of the category that society places them under.
Before international travel took over, the art world and all their trends were contained within countries’ borders. The German renaissance, the Florentine painters, the British landscape artists such as John Constable and the impressionists who roamed the streets of Paris. All these practices knew of one another, but there was never a desire, or mechanism, that led to them understanding anything profoundly deep about the other circle. They were all naïve of each other.
In many ways, this is the foundation of art. It is not being able to tell someone the year or flash their knowledge of the artist's personal life, which simply MUST lead to the subject matter of this painting. It is the ability to bring your own interpretation.
Of course, there is a beauty to understanding the history of a painting, and where it fits into the context of the world and what it meant then compared to now. Take Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ as an example. Back in 1937 when the artist's brush left the canvas for the last time and the painting was displayed to the public. The piece was submerged in a culture of war, fascism, and communism, and acted as one of the largest anti-war pieces in history. Now, while that historical imprint still lies at the heart of the painting, we cannot force people who no longer live in such a culture to attribute the same meaning. Often, those who study art will force meaning into a painting, simply because they want to use their knowledge, yet one of the most beautiful things about a piece of art is the mutability from culture to culture, and personal meaning as well as public.
One often finds they receive more personal gain from a painting when they strip back history and simply, well, observe. Allow your own mind to connect the dots to your own experiences, feelings, and thoughts. Knowledge is just one side, while naivety stands tall and proud as a positive antithesis.
I recently listened to a podcast in which two women are discussing the 13th-century poet Dante’s writing. As they chatter, the host explains something fundamental to this question of naivety. Despite language changes, scholars like herself are always able to bring Dante’s work into the present. Words may change over time, but this does not prevent literature from moving through the ages. It may have a different meaning in our modern world, or perhaps lack the meaning the writer embedded within the words, but does this make it lack meaning?
This theory of words can be applied to artistic works. We cannot truly understand the motivations behind a Titan or the meaning behind a Monet. Their life, relationships and travels can be learnt. Social circles, enemies and friends can all be studied. However, minds cannot be penetrated, especially those that were thinking over a century ago. So, is the key to understanding art not to know? There is a certain depth that comes with the innocent eye, an uncorrupted gaze holding nothing other than contact with the brushes of oil on the canvas. Perhaps before we bring knowledge to a painting, we must first bring naivety.