Art as a Foreign Language
I’ve always been interested in art. It is amazing to me how many feelings and ideas people can express and how many forms, shapes, and colors it can take. There is no one specific way that is correct for self-expression. To me, good art is one that makes me feel something, the stronger the better. Art can evoke in me any mixture of feelings that I can feel. It can throw me back and remind me of times in my life that I have not thought of in a long while. It can express ideas and sometimes even opinions without uttering a single word.
I think that what most captivates me about art is the fact that it conveys a feeling of connection. I always felt that our skills of speech and communication are somewhat limited. They have evolved over the last few tens of thousands of years to serve certain purposes and I think we often forget that they are not necessarily perfect. They may help us achieve complex goals and build relationships, but I can’t help but feel that we may never truly project what is going on inside our heads to our peers. Some things in me feel too big to express with words, and art seems to help close that gap.
Music can sometimes feel like it expresses what I feel inside like nothing else can. I love music. When I was younger, I used to spend almost all of my time learning music theory, writing and refining my own music. For hours a day, I would study the guitar - I wanted to not have to think about the music I was playing. I wanted to trust my fingers to know what to do on their own, so I could use the most of my mental capacity to concentrate on what I wanted to express. I was never overly talented or anything, but I got a small glimpse into this artistic experience.
I used to try every variation and mixture of chords, scales, and modes that I could think of. Sometimes, a single modulation or chord progression would have such a distinct feeling that I could easily recognize it and implement it in my own music. After a while, it became easier to discern the feelings of less distinct variations. Exploring different variations felt like finding new colors on a painter’s palette. ‘Unlocking’ these colors made more specific feelings available to me to write with. The best example of music that is full of color is Claude Debussy’s music. His music sounds like what a colorful painting would sound if you could convert it to music.
I only took a few steps into the world of music, and already I felt like I could communicate some feelings that I simply cannot express with words. I got the impression that if I could try and learn all the musical scales and modes, then I would unlock all the colors, all the tastes, all the feelings and I would be able to show them to the world. I could try and bridge the gap that is between you and me in a way I can’t with words.
The fact that art is so personal and subjective makes it even more beautiful. You don’t have to explain why you love a painting. You don’t have to feel guilty about having or not having a connection to a certain sonata, concerto or symphony. You are not obliged to make excuses for what you feel. In a way, we are all curators for our own art galleries. We find and collect pieces of art that we feel a connection to. We create an assortment of works that collectively express our view of the world. We share pieces of it with those we love, to try and let them share our feelings. We hope that they would feel what we feel. We hope that for a moment we could connect and communicate in a way we may not be able to with words.
Now, I couldn’t write a whole article about art without seeing what science has to say about it. Let’s start with the way that we process art. Experts agree that when we view art - a certain painting, for example, a mixture of both emotional and analytical factors are used to assess it. First, we evaluate the painting instinctively and automatically. We get a feel of the painting, we unconsciously decide if we feel positively or negatively about it. This is supposedly a part of our ever-alert, unconscious defense mechanism - trying to assess threats in our surroundings. Then, we consciously analyze what we see using any context we have about it. This whole process can take seconds. Many studies point to the fact that both emotional and analytical processes affect each other and are intertwined in a way.
Usually, the first impression you get, the result of the emotional processing, acts as the basis for the analytical processing. Your first emotional reaction may be either positive or negative, and your analytical review will aim to support your emotional conclusions. If, for some reason, your emotional impression is a negative one, your analytical part will work hard to find reasons why you don’t like it. But sometimes it can take another step - you may have a specific emotional opinion, but after some analytical processing, your emotions may change to a point where you sometimes can’t recreate your first emotional response anymore.
When you get more familiar with a certain type of art, your emotional ‘barrier’ recognizes them and more readily knows that there is no threat. It lets them pass quicker and you let your analytical processing take a bigger part. The most relatable example, I find, is listening to music. I believe anyone can relate.
When I’m listening to a genre that is new to me, I feel like I’m listening with a fresh ear and a blank mind. I don’t know what to expect or what to look for, and so I’m relying heavily on my emotional processing stage. In those first few listens my emotional response is the strongest, and I feel connected to the music. After getting to know the genre a little better, I start to recognize recurring aspects in it. I find myself comparing songs, albums, and artists based on technical properties and style. This is the analytical processing stage settling in. Eventually, listening to new songs in the genre becomes a very different experience. I find that my analytical processing stage is active almost from the start - I am able to point out all the technical aspects of a song and compare them with others in the genre. By then I feel more detached as if my emotional processing stage has diminished.
In a paper titled ‘What makes an art expert? Emotion and evaluation in art appreciation’ by Helmut Leder, et al., the researchers asked if there is a difference in the processing of paintings between three groups of varying art expertise. They have shown that in all three groups there was a similar distinction between positive and negative emotions inferred from similar artworks, but that the emotional response was softened with higher levels of expertise. In short, they show that with higher levels of expertise, the emotional processing stage is relatively silenced, while the analytical processing stage is taking a larger role. Experts are more detached than lay people when viewing art.
Other studies have shown that when asked to sort information of a certain field, experts in the field do it somewhat differently than non-experts. Give a bunch of pictures of trees to a regular person and a dendrologist and ask them to sort them into groups. Let them keep dividing the pictures to sub-groups for as many times as they can. Non-experts may have some prior knowledge in the field, but most will only have the evident visual appearance to sort by. Non-experts may group the pictures by color of leaves first, and then sub-group into tall or short trees and so on. Experts, on the other hand, will probably have knowledge that isn’t visually available in the pictures. Along with the visual aspects, they may also sort by natural habitat, taxonomic relation or maybe even known symbionts. Experts usually have more levels of sub-groupings for pictures in their fields.
These sorting studies apply to art, as well. Ask non-experts and experts to sort pictures and you will see similar patterns. Non-experts might group the pictures based on color, general atmosphere or prominent objects. Experts might group the pictures based on style, technique or context, as well. The difference is that non-experts base their sorting on categories that are more shallow and visually obvious than experts.
After all the reading and planning that was necessary to write this article, I came to believe that art is just a foreign language. A painting is like a storyteller that tells a story in his own language. If you don’t speak the language, you won’t understand the meaning of the words, but you may still enjoy the sound and intonation of the language. You won’t know what the story is about, but you may infer if it’s a sad or a happy story. If you do speak the language, you may still appreciate the sound of the language, but you may also try and interpret the moral of the story. You will have more information to interpret the story by.
Often, I hear people make the argument that art is completely free for interpretation, and that expertise in art is a made up concept. While I think that everyone should enjoy their perception of art in any way they might like to, I don’t agree with that argument. Using the metaphor from the last paragraph, I think that people who don’t understand the language think that the language is made up. They might decide that it’s all gibberish, that the words don’t have any meaning and any interpretation is acceptable. These people have a hard time trusting someone else’s interpretations of different kinds of art. These people often make the argument that their interpretation is as good as anybody’s. I think that there’s an important difference between not speaking the language and knowing that you don’t speak the language. Your interpretation and perception of art are your own and that’s important. But knowing that there might be more behind art that you don’t understand may help you appreciate and enjoy it even more.
As always, this article has some additional notes in the blog area.
Thanks for reading!