For Whose Sake?

Does art demand anything of us?

I’ve been wondering lately, not about the role or responsibility of the artist or the critic, or even necessarily about the art that gets produced(1)—but rather about the person who enjoys some form of artistic creation. Is this painting or sculpture, this piece of music or this film, a gift that can be taken and enjoyed, and that’s it, without much thought going into the process at all—or is there some sort of responsibility entailed in the enjoyment? In taking pleasure in a given work, is the recipient obliged to do something with or about it, to know anything about it other than how it makes them feel?(2)

Caravaggio, Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Does full experience of the painting depend on knowing who Mary Magdalene was, what ecstasy meant in 1606, or what materials
Caravaggio used to depict his subject’s condition?

I’ll try to explain. I’m a pretty big fan of American painter Mark Rothko—or rather, the works for which he’s probably best known, his rectangular blocks of color. I don’t really have an explanation for why they keep drawing me in; the best example of their effect could be the way in which sitting for a while in front of his Orange and Yellow on a museum visit made me feel as if I’d downed half a bottle of champagne and been hypnotized or entranced at the same time. As I sat and stared at the canvas, I was unable to move or look away, and all that brightness made everything vibrate—not in a nausea- or stroke-inducing fashion, but so that you felt as if the surrounding air itself was much more than, more alive than, just the invisible oxygen we take for granted.

After I moved on, I let the impression sit with me, and let it dwindle away on its own; I let the experience be what it was, and essentially end whenever it was time for it to end. And as far as that particular painting is concerned, that’s been it. I had and have checked out other Rothko pieces and exhibits, and, while in a play-reading group, happen to have read Red (about Rothko’s creation of paintings originally intended to be displayed in the Four Seasons). But until pulling together links for today’s essay, I hadn’t really done much research about how Rothko made his paintings or why; why he transitioned from figurative work early in his career to abstract expressionism, or to these color field paintings in particular. In the case of Orange and Yellow, at least, my encounter with it was enough. Having attempted to load information onto that sensory experience would have been too much to handle.

Well, maybe I’m just not very sophisticated in the ways I interact with art, or am simply incurious. But I don’t think those assertions are accurate. Whether or not I’m fully informed about a creator’s biography or methods of creation, something is happening when I come into contact with the work itself. Is it as easy as saying there are different levels on which you can experience a piece of art—some more fact-informed than others, some more emotionally rich than others? If so, would it be problematic to assert that one level is just as valid as another? I’d like to believe so—but then if we look outside art, say to politics, it becomes pretty clear that being taken in by a politician’s calls to emotion, without getting the facts straight behind those calls, is pretty risky. We can even go into further mind-bending loops to look at the ways in which politics has made use of art, and/or vice versa, in pushing particular agendas, and realize it might not be enough to think, “Hey! Pretty picture!” and walk off without further information.(3)

It’s with music that I’ve only recently begun feeling the full discomfort of combining whatever surrounds a piece itself (here, a song or songs) with the emotional interaction with that piece. Historically, I’ve devoured certain bands’ music, listening so often and/or intensely to it that it becomes a part of me. But it’s only rarely that said involvement has ever extended into interest in the musicians who put those tunes into the world.(4) Until my thirties, I didn’t know much about Morrissey, even though I’d depended since high school on his/the Smith’s songs to get me through any number of situations. But then I started hearing about how cranky and, well, increasingly racist he’d become. And after having finally read his Autobiography,(5) the prospect of listening to the man’s music, much as it had meant to me for so long, became something less than comfortable.

Would the same be true for my experience of Orange and Yellow, were I to find out Mark Rothko had done something atrocious? Is it still OK to listen to the Smiths, or to Morrissey—and is it possible to do so while condemning the latter’s sentiments and behaviors? Inevitably, we’ve moved away from the question I’m really interested in: whether a piece of art on its own calls the person who engages with it to any sort of responsibility—responsibility to find out more about it; about its creator; about the conditions or contexts in which it was made; about what, if anything, its maker was trying to say.

For now, then (knowing among other things that this question or argument will not be settled within the space of a few paragraphs), I’ll offer an initial proposition: Maybe a viewer’s (or listener’s) primary responsibility vis-à-vis the creation at hand is simply to pay attention. What that means, though, or results in, is something else altogether. The first time I saw Ugetsu, for example, I knew very little about the history that lay behind it—and in fact, the film made such a non-impression on me that until I recently watched it again, I forgot I’d even seen it. This time around, the viewing happened as a result of having read Zack Davisson’s excellent Yurei: The Japanese Ghost, which went into a full examination of the eighteenth-century stories and traditions that inspired the film. The second viewing offered an example of more information enhancing my experience of a work of art—but I do wonder about the fact that on its own, during my first exposure to it, the movie encouraged me to do nothing other than get through it. Had I been steeped in Japanese traditions, that first outcome might have been different—but again, the information would already have been there to contribute to the experience.

At this point, I fear going any further will just keep churning some already muddy waters. I’ll leave us, then, with this thought from Mark Rothko himself about what color was doing in his paintings. It was supposed to, he said,

...Express basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point...(6)

In this case, I think the artist would have approved of my experience of his work—or at least acknowledged that I’d acted responsibly in studying it.


(1) N.b., I’m using “art” in its broadest sense—not just a visual production of some sort.

(2) Full disclosure: I started an art class this week, and we’re apparently going to be talking a lot about the interaction of knowledge and experience. If any of my remarks is inspired by the instructor or participants, or if I paraphrase any of their ideas, I’ll give credit to the appropriate person/s.

(3) For example, the Futurists always tie me up in knots; should I feel guilty about how so much of their visual work is just plain cool? I did read Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s novel, Mafarka the Futurist, and its violence, misogyny, racism, and so many other disgusting characteristics made me want to throw up and, were such a thing possible, give his ghost a good kick to the nether regions. I’m amazed I read the whole book.

(4) And it’s usually because I have to do some assigned research on those musicians. Right now, the Violent Femmes and the Smiths come most immediately to mind as representative of such a situation. Does this absence of interest in musicians’ lives mean I’m not a true fan? I’d say a true fan of the music, yes; a true fan of the musicians, no—simply because, even though they’re the originators of the music I love, it’s not anything about the originators themselves that thrills me.

(5) At first, this was one of the most fascinatingly weird books I’d ever read—but that was before it descended into an apparent attempt to settle very old scores or justify old behaviors.

(6) Quotation taken from the previously cited Rothko site. There’s also the question, to be discussed another day, about what exactly is transmitted or sensed or felt—what’s going on in general—in a revelatory or religious experience.