“He (Giacometti) looks at his wife so closely that he doesn’t recognize her anymore after a long time. He begins to see the flesh and the material on her face that changes every day. Me too, I don’t think I’ve ever recognized one of my own sons.”
The words of the teacher lingered in my mind as I entered the city’s main station. Around me were people of all ages, all genders and with all kinds of emotions. I saw their eyebrows pulled together so that a small “frown” creased their foreheads, their lips moving to make different forms and to produce a certain vibration called “sound”, their legs and arms swinging in the air to make “movements” and to help them catch the incoming train. I wondered how we people could see each other as “people” most of the time, while these passengers around me appeared as if they were merely made of material and all the rest was but an incomprehensible chaos in a great void inside each person. Yet, they were more human than ever because they didn’t appear human at all. My perception of others and of myself as moving life forms didn’t match my teacher’s words perfectly, but they spoke to me in a particular way that I didn’t understand.
I caught the train back home every Friday afternoon with the same confusion in my head. As it had been a good decision to enter the Academy so as to learn, I had been able to leave the Image Analysis class every week with new insights into how some artists worked and reached their results, together with their stories, fears and perspectives. However, I’d always failed to find their works lovely. Though it had always been interesting to listen to the teacher describing their work process, it had seemed to me as though I’d been studying works of literature at secondary school: You read them out loud. You muse on each sentence or each verse in silence. You contemplate the beauty and try to understand or to ignore the content, then look further into the authors’ biographies. You think you’ve known everything that is to know about those works when you’re able to repeat everything you’ve learned or write long texts analyzing them; but at the end you realize that they are all very distant. Interesting, beautifully explained, but distant.
How could a mere student like me, someone who was supposed to learn from these experienced artists, have the privilege of judging their works as not being lovely? How could I allow myself to be so subjective? Or was subjectivity part of the art world?
It was for me sometimes like a walk in a museum: you stride along the museum walls, passing from one artwork to another. Sometimes you walk with awe, most of the time with the mere attempt to appreciate a piece of art that you know nothing about, or for which explanations you don’t even understand. Panamarenko, Walter Swennen, Karl Philips, Vaast Colson,…, those whose works I would never be able to appreciate without any explanation. The word “beautiful” that the teacher often used to describe their works slipped my mind. Yet I tried to convince myself that it was me who didn’t yet have much knowledge about art in general or modern art in particular, and my responsibility was to learn more, for I didn’t want to be or to appear vain. I didn’t understand but at the same time I didn’t want to let go and to utter what most museum visitors said at the end of the day: “Well, that was it. That was art.” Still it was the reason why I’d always hesitated to visit museums and expositions. I was afraid of not understanding, and this fear had gradually become negligence.
Then there came a particular Friday on which everything suddenly seemed to fall into place, as the teacher looked around the class and said: “I didn’t show you the works of these old artists so as to talk to you about them. This whole thing is about you.” Words bounced off walls, threaded their way through the seats and lingered at some corners of the room. Though my design teacher had once said that he found it difficult to have to explain design using words, I was quite sure at this very moment that words, just like designs, could influence people in such an amazing and unexplainable way. The artists’ works appeared much less distant from that point on. That distance had always been the gap I’d created between them and myself, for I’d always felt so small in front of these people, and the urge to learn had formed my fear of being vain.
“I am stupid, because I cannot see the image”, answered the teacher to another student a few minutes later on why he never became an artist.
I am, too. And I guess we all are somehow.