Seeing everything but knowing nothing

ROTFLOLEB, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

During an A-level Art trip to London to view the main art galleries back in the early 1980’s, I learnt two fundamental things. Firstly that art is just as much about mental as much as visual stimulation. The second, and to my mind, more profound thing I learnt, was that I was allowed to appreciate a work of art without having the first clue as to whose work it was or why I liked it so much. At the gift shop of the Tate Gallery, London, I found a single postcard of an abstract work that immediately caught my eye. The work was absolutely mesmerising and uplifting, however the logical and reasoning side of my brain was cast adrift, shrugging its shoulders, practically at a loss to contribute anything to this moment of pure enlightenment.

Now, in 2022, the book ‘The unknown craftsman’ by Japanese philosopher Soetsu Yanagi, is providing me with an endorsement of this experience some forty years earlier. Soetsu is famous for his involvement with Potters Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada in raising the profile of the ancient craft of eastern ceramics back in the 1920’s. Soetsu argues:

‘In understanding beauty, intuition is more of the essence than intellectual perception. The reverse of these two faculties stultifies vision. To ‘see’ is to go directly to the core; to know the facts about an object of beauty is to go around the periphery. Intellectual discrimination is less essential to an understanding of beauty than the power of intuition that precedes it’

Armed with my experience of that one postcard, Soetsu’s argument definitely strikes a chord. Whereas knowledge through research of course rewards us by explaining a lot about the work including the techniques used to create it, and the thoughts and beliefs inspiring the maker at the time, no amount of knowledge can alter an honest personal visual liking of the work in question. In today’s world where monetary value and a makers celebrity status tells us that we really should like the work of artist X or Y, in order to be artistically enlightened or because it could be ‘worth a bit’, I think these are wise words indeed.