Art is not information
Luiz Camillo Osorio – March 2017
What makes us like Art? What is its role in our life ? What is the difference between liking Art and knowing it, and how are the two related? Do new technologies facilitate or harm the way we deal with a work of art? A while ago, while visiting a great museum and its collection, I noticed that many people would spend the same amount of time reading the labels as they did observing the works. I would say, 15 seconds for each, to be optimistic. Between one and the other, there would be time for a comment or a sigh, followed by remarks such as “Manet!” “Monet!” “Cézanne”. Curiously enough, it was as if knowing who the artist was, and recognizing a familiar name, would free them from needing to pay attention to the work of art itself – in that case, paintings.
The presence of labels, presentation texts and comments on the walls of museums is part of their informational and educational purpose. Apps for mobile phones or tablets might be regarded as a step forward. It’s worth knowing the technique used in a work of art, the date of its creation, and, eventually, the title of the work. Some texts developed by curators often help us understand the works and the conceptual framework of the exhibition, enhancing our ability to relate to the works of art and their historical, cultural and political contexts.
However, the fundamental point here is to observe the work of art, to notice its details, to dedicate one’s time and attention to what is being viewed (or imagined), to discuss it, to highlight specific aspects of it and state what we like and don’t like about it; to allow room for any lack of knowledge to step in and learn how to deal with it when facing a work of art. Of course, observing and talking about a work of art is a crucial determinant of personal taste and knowledge. This happens naturally, and it is always a comparative and cumulative process. If there is a real interest, the more you see it, the more you like it, and the more you like it, the more you will want to know about it. However, this is a very personal experience; no one else can live it for us. Knowing about the works and gathering information is not the path to enjoy Art. Art must be experienced.
These issues came back to my mind recently, when I was reading an article on the Brazilian version of the El País newspaper entitled “O Shazam da Arte” [“The Shazam of Art”] about an app that helps people recognize and have more information about works of art in museums, books and even on the streets. According to the journalist, this new technology developed by Smartify “is a real-time, high-speed image processing system designed to recognize the work of art (painting, sculpture or object) to which the viewer is orienting his/her phone camera. Once the work of art is detected, the system provides the user with related information, including reviews and comments, history, videos and a bio of the artist.” Apparently, another great tool that will bring relevant information and help us learn more. But I would like to move a bit further.
Every medicine is also poison. For me, obsessing with knowing more and considering knowledge and information as equivalents ultimately prevents the development of another relationship that, in the case of Art, seems to be crucial: the relationship between knowledge and pleasure. Pleasure comes not with what we know about the works of Art, but precisely with what escapes this knowledge, what is left other than information and intrigues us, provokes us, makes us think. Pleasure does not come from knowing that Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victorie, or from knowing that it is a post-impressionist painting. Such knowledge will not summon us, pull us into the artist’s brush strokes, or force us to keep watching a painting it and enjoying every minute of it. You see, I’m not saying that information should be ignored. I’m just saying that this would be comparing apples and oranges. They are related, that´s for sure, but one does not determine the other.
The danger of this new technology tool – don’t take me wrong, I am not trying to demonize its already established presence in our lives – is that it ends up introducing another element between our eyes and the piece of art before us; an element that subtracts even more time from the pleasure with whatever we don’t know, with what does not belong to the knowledge sphere, with what is not information, but rather expression. Of course, optimists will always argue that one thing does not eliminate the other. In theory, that´s fine. However, our subjectivity is already damaged, addicted to information, absolutely unused to not knowing and being summoned by it. The not knowing that summons us is rare, but it is precisely what characterizes the aesthetic experience, the unnamed power that makes us feel and think without necessarily already knowing, and will transform new forms of knowledge into action. It is precisely in the interval among perception, recognition and knowing that imagination comes into play: the ability that makes us go beyond what´s known and risk new possibilities of knowing.
We are living in a fast paced world. We no longer have time to stop and notice things; we must be on the move, gathering (and discharging) information. When it comes to provide us more and more informative material, without questioning if we have time to read all of it and know that much, nothing compares to technology. I mean, technological mediation may allow us to hold a great deal of knowledge (and power), but, at the same time, I suspect, it may be turning us into experience-poor, aesthetically hindered individuals, with limited ability to imagine. That´s why I find apps such as Smartify cool, but remain a bit skeptical about them.
About the author
Luiz Camillo Osorio is the Curator of PIPA Institute, PIPA’s founder and Board Member. He is a Professor and current Director of the Philosophy Department at PUC-Rio. Camillo was the Curator of MAM-Rio between 2009 and 2015. To read more exclusive texts written by Camillo, click here.