This blog describes why art matters. You will develop a set of tools enabling you to see the art in works of art. You will learn to see the way artists’ see. You will transform the very world you thought you were seeing every day into visual adventures. You will be equipped to do this work by learning to see.
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
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?
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.
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.
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:
see, but you do not observe.The
distinction is clear.” (A Scandal in
is nothing new under the sun.It has all
been done before.” (A Study in Scarlet)
one man can invent another can discover.” (The
Adventure of the Dancing Man)
is nothing like first-hand evidence.” (A
Study in Scarlet)
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.