Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Sherlock Connection

In the Preface to the First Edition of The Art in Painting, Dr. Barnes says the objective method he pioneered at the Barnes Foundation to understand and appreciate paintings comprises “the observation of facts, reflection upon them, and the testing of the conclusions by their success in application.”

Sherlock Holmes, then, practiced the objective method.

I came upon this seemingly odd connection in a synchronistic way.

A few weeks ago, I prepared to drive to my nephew’s surprise 40th birthday party in Poughkeepsie, NY, a four-hour trip.  I usually go to the library and borrow an audiobook to distract me from the tedium.  The day before, I realized I forgot to do so, so I did the next best thing: I went to iTunes to look for an audiobook I could download to my cell phone.  Instead, I found a free APP containing numerous audiobooks.

Once in the car, I selected the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  To Poughkeepsie and back, I listened to Sherlock tell Watson how he did what he did and why, and I wished I had a pen and paper so I could record the statements connecting his “method” to Dr. Barnes’s method.

Once home, though, Google saved the day.  I typed into the search box “Sherlock Holmes quotes,” and up came a website that had done the job for me.  I copied and pasted the relevant quotes into a Word document, and I handed them out during the last CSI for Art Detectives classes I taught at both the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Wilmington and the Chester County Historical Society in West Chester.  My students found these quotes a “fitting” culmination to their Color Scene Investigations.

Then today I opened my New York Times and read an article in the Opinion section titled “The Power of Concentration,” a discussion of what we can learn from the way Sherlock Holmes trains his mind, by Maria Konnikova, the author of “Mastermind:  How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.” 

What can we learn?

According to Konnikova, the core of mindfulness is the ability to pay attention. That’s exactly what Holmes does when he taps together the tips of his fingers, or exhales a fine cloud of smoke. He is centering his attention on a single element. And somehow, despite the seeming pause in activity, he emerges, time and time again, far ahead of his energetic colleagues. In the time it takes old detective Mac to traipse around all those country towns in search of a missing bicyclist in ‘The Valley of Fear,’ Holmes solves the entire crime without leaving the room where the murder occurred. That’s the thing about mindfulness. It seems to slow you down, but it actually gives you the resources you need to speed up your thinking."
Konnikova goes on to say that "The difference between a Holmes and a Watson is, essentially, one of practice. Attention is finite, it’s true — but it is also trainable. Through modifying our practices of thought toward a more Holmes-like concentration, we can build up neural real estate that is better able to deal with the variegated demands of the endlessly multitasking, infinitely connected modern world.”

What has this to do with the objective method in appreciating the art in painting?  Think about what I have taught you to do in these posts.  I have instructed you to look for picture facts, not subject facts.  You scrutinize the painting to see and describe the relationships among light, line, color, and space.  You look for aesthetic rhythm (repetition with variety).  You look for other aesthetic qualities: balance, symmetry, novelty, suspense, expectancy, surprise.    You look for a theme and its variations (unity and variety).   And you do this yourself, without needing biographical, historical, or any other information outside the picture. 

Many of my classroom students and many of you, my readers, tell me this is very hard work.  Many complain that this method takes a long time to master. 

I agree.

It is hard work, and it takes a long time to master.

When you see it through, you not only understand the art in a painting, you feel the satisfaction, the pleasure, the thrill, that is the result of a complete aesthetic experience.  And nothing touches that delicious experience. 


Sherlock knew this.  We know this.

Now I can add another benefit, a health benefit.  Konnikova also argues that “Mindfulness may have a prophylactic effect: it can strengthen the areas that are most susceptible to cognitive decline. When we learn to unitask, to think more in line with Holmes’s detached approach, we may be doing more than increasing our observational prowess. We may be investing in a sounder mental future — no matter how old we are.”
That’s pretty exciting stuff.  Not only do you, as practitioners of the objective method for appreciating the art in painting increase your aesthetic experiences, you also enhance your mindfulness capabilities.  And increasing mindfulness capabilities has all kinds of benefits from speeding up thought process, to paying attention, to slowing memory decline.

Finally, here it is in the words of the great detective himself, Sherlock Holmes:

1.     “You see, but you do not observe.  The distinction is clear.” (A Scandal in Bohemia)

2.     “There is nothing new under the sun.  It has all been done before.” (A Study in Scarlet)

3.     “What one man can invent another can discover.” (The Adventure of the Dancing Man)

4.     “There is nothing like first-hand evidence.” (A Study in Scarlet)

5.     “Most people, if you describe a train of events to them, will tell you what the result would be. They can put those events together in their minds, and argue from them that something will come to pass. There are few people, however, who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result.  This power is what I mean when I talk of reasoning backwards, or analytically.” (A Study in Scarlet)

In case you need evidence, look at this chart:

We start from the picture, and we work backwards.  If we pay attention to all the clues in the picture, we arrive at that charmed moment when we, as the artist did, confront the picture’s source, uncover the visual message embedded in it, and feel we understand it. 
You have this power.