The Art Gallery Experience

I’ve referred to this in the lot of book reviews so I think I’d better try to describe what I mean.

I have a blind spot for graphic art, painting, or whatever it’s properly called. I think I bring some training and even personal production experience to writing and music, even to cooking. But I’ve never taken a course in art history, appreciation of paintings, or anything like that. I’m vaguely aware of impressionism, cubism, Picasso, Van Gough, and other household names but I know and intellectually understand painting about as well as I do electronic engineering or tax law.

But my ignorance is bliss sometimes. When I go to an art gallery or museum (I usually go alone) I walk in with some idea of what era or school of paintings I’m going to be looking at, and start wandering through the rooms spending a few moments in front of each of the pieces, and wait for something to happen.

And, you know, it usually does. I’m looking at one painting after another seeing only shapes and colours in front of my face, but then at some point as I look at one of them I kind of connect. This is subjective of course. The connection might prompt me to think “that looks like (high school girlfriend)” or “that reminds me of (significant event or feeling or idea…)” but there’s much more to the connection than any specific content. Suddenly I seem to know what in my imagination the artist was doing or thinking or trying to represent or communicate or say in some way, and I appreciate why that particular work is hanging in the museum instead of a thousand others. But at the same time as I see a painting in front of and of course outside me for the first time, something happens inside, and that something is mine.

After that happens much of what I see for the rest of the time I’m there I see differently. And if I go back and look at the works of art I saw before the experience of connection, they look the same as they did. None of the magic.

Many people would nod their heads and think “Yes. That’s the aesthetic experience. No need to elaborate.” But I don’t feel that way about it exactly: I want to know what that connection is. I imagine if I understood it I might be able either to make it happen right away as soon as I walk into a museum, or even at other times. Views over the city, people newly met, remembering my early married life, or just sitting down for dinner could be imbued with that fabulous significance by just mentally snapping my fingers.

But of course that doesn’t work. There has to be some sort of a prologue or prodrome, or buildup or preparation or whatever the necessary “getting-ready” is, and there are times when no amount of trying to force it to happen succeeds. Certain things seem to encourage it: a couple of drinks, the prospect of a day or two without responsibility, smoking marijuana when I’m not worried, or being with somebody I like.

But whatever turns the switch definitely consists both in something external and something internal, and the difference between on and off is huge and the experience is real. When the switch is on it’s probably about as close as I ever get to where I really want to be. And I’ve had no success figuring out what’s going on and attempting to control reproducing the experience.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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