At the OCON2016 art show I received some welcome advice on blogging. That advice was basically: Don’t write about new topics or perspectives that you’re exploring — you’ll get bogged down. Blog about things you already know, but that a lot of readers likely don’t know. That way, the writing will flow more easily and you’ll blog more. Well, okay.
A long-standing bit of knowledge (for me) is how to think about a work of art in order to get the most out of it. When we look at a work of art — a painting, sculpture, or drawing — we can ask ourselves a few key questions. If it depicts a human figure, we can ask ourselves, “What kind of being is this?” “Is this being healthy or unwell, able or infirm, alert or comatose, flourishing or suffering?” Those sorts of questions address the view of human nature that the artwork dramatizes. That view is, of course, the artist’s view — the view that inspired the work, that guided the artist during the creative process, and that the work, therefore, reflects.
There are other questions that address other ideas embodied in art, but I’ll leave those for another time. Questions like the one above “open up the metaphysics” of a work of art for us — they deal with the most profound meaning of a work of art. The metaphysics embodied in an artwork reflects the artist’s outlook about the world as such, about human beings as such, and about what sort of life is possible to human beings. Those are the grand-scale ideas that motivate the artist and that we, in turn, can contemplate when we view art.
The metaphysics is more profound in scope than the subject, and even the theme of the artwork. The subject is what the artwork depicts. An example of subject is the depiction of a girl examining how water runs through her fingers. The theme is the general idea that the work dramatizes, and it can vary in profundity. An example of theme might be: the joy of discovery, or the joy of being alive. The metaphysics is the underlying world view implied by the work. In the case of a painting of a girl examining water, the metaphysics could be: Man is able to thrive in a knowable world.
The distinction between theme and metaphysics also came up during the OCON2016 art show. A visitor to the exhibit told me that he uses narrative to help young people engage with art and derive personal meaning from it. I think this is a wonderful approach, and one that would be especially effective for young people. But adults need to access the metaphysics of art, for it is the most deeply conceptual of what art offers us. I suggested that he find a way to take his method a step further for adults, to not only elicit their awareness of the thematic ideas that art presents, which draws them toward a more conceptual experience, but to spark awareness of the metaphysics of art, which is the most conceptual experience they can have with art.