Art as Memory

by Courtney McKee | 2/8/19 2:05am

Art is a medium that contains within it the passage of time. It is something that remains. A piece of art is how it was, how it has been since its creation. It is the same object seen by innumerable different sets of eyes, through myriad ages, and yet still the lift of the artist’s brush flicked up a peak of paint that rose above the canvas. The paint dried in its miniature topography and the action of an instant was preserved through time. Do you remember standing in a museum to view for the first time a famous piece of art that has been reproduced in countless photographs, on postcards, t-shirts and posters? Did you look closer and imagine the artist painting it, stroke by stroke? Did you retrace the line of their brush with your eyes and follow it up to a peak of dried paint?

“A lot of people think paintings are flat, but they’re not. They have a structure and support which influences the way you see it. How three-dimensional is the paint? Does it project from the wall? All these things are important to understanding an object. They’re not created to be digital,” said Katherine Hart, senior curator of collections at the Hood Museum of Art.

Art is tactile in nature. It has dimensions and exists in space, allowing the viewer to coexist with it. The space in which the art lives is shared and thus, the viewer’s experience of the piece can be nothing but subjective, depending on proximity and angles, state of mind and associations. How a viewer responds to a piece of art is a function of these terms, its limits dictated by the viewer’s memory, the time before they laid eyes upon it. Both the creation and the consumption of art is a play of memory, containing that of the artist and all who have seen it since.

“The actual object is an experience with space and time. These are the basic ingredients of art. Works have a physical presence and reality. They have depth and perspective, and the ability to engage the process of seeing, which, on this basis, is applying the senses to engage your intelligence to cause emotional effect, ” said Brian Kennedy, director of the Hood Museum from 2005-10.

If you watch a time-lapse video of a busy public space, you will notice what doesn’t move. Around the fixed point, hordes of people pass; they are there for an instant, subjects of time. The fixed point grows in fascination, this thing independent of masterful time. What does it know? It holds us captive, it makes us yearn for what we cannot be. Yet, it is, as John Keats said, “a silent form, that does tease us out of thought as does eternity,” so what does that give us? A glimpse of times past and future? A key that will solve the mysteries of the world? Or only more questions, more shadows on the wall of the cave?

“The visual can be multivalent, you read it through time. There are many meanings, depending on what you’re looking for and through what lens. Close looking, discussion and collaboration can bring out many kinds of meaning, narratives and visual experiences. There are a lot of artists who are interested in creating a language of the visual,” Hart said.

Art escapes definition. Like poetry, to define it would be an insult to the worlds of possible meaning it could contain. Humans love categorization, how else would one explain the sense of satisfaction that comes from finding a word to conceptualize a thought or feeling one couldn’t yet express? It is said a larger vocabulary does a higher I.Q. make. By that rule, art should make us feel dumb, evading as it does definition, categorization and explanation. But art is not answerable to words, it is beyond them. The language of art, a separate language entirely, speaks to something deeper, expressed and understood by all humans, through time and space.

“Art is an expression of our communicative ability as humans. We’ve evolved from our primate ancestors because we developed higher communication skills and the capacity to create society together. These aspects allowed us to develop what we call an artistic impulse, which is the ability to express ourselves in objects and concepts. This has now become an innate part of our biology, our makeup, our capacity,” Kennedy said.

A museum contains art. Thus, are we to take a museum as the seat of all human knowledge, disguised in visual metaphor? And artists as prophets, receivers and interpreters? Or is the very act of creating art, something of which we all are capable, transcendent in itself? The potter builds a vase from a lump of clay. Slowly, form rises from the formless, from chaos. Muddy hands dip in cloudy waters. Let there be a vase. 

Art  taps into the deep well of our psyche. Great art taps into universal truths, deeper still into the fabric of our reality. In the theory of relativity, gravity is the distortion of space by a heavy object causing smaller objects to roll toward it. The object influences its distant neighbors through mysterious means. In the fabric of our reality, our bodies are the points at which lines of converging energy intersect in a dense network. This network is held together by our memories. Lab mice flinched at the smell of almonds because their grandparents were given a shock every time the scientists wafted an almond-scented chemical into their cages. Art navigates our memories, those created by our experiences and those unknown memories we inherit.

“I believe that art is the highest manifestation of our humanity. It is an expression of our emotions and their intellect making memories. Art can be of all different types and kinds but it has essential ingredients. And we recognize it because it is ourselves as humans. That is its power,” Kennedy said.

Can it be that art can access our collective memories, buried deep in our subconscious? Can it be we have all lived a thousand lives and art reminds us of ourselves? Is it truly a mirror held up to nature? That therein lies its power? The Hood Museum has opened its doors. See for yourself.