Before there were self-help books and the legions of advice columnists, before Dr. Phil, there was art.
From early human history, visual expression was the most common and universal way to communicate, to tell the human story and place it in a larger context. It could explain, reassure, comfort, inspire and validate. Therein lay its value.
So it wasn't art as we think of art today. The cave paintings from 30,000 years ago weren't "art." Neither were the murals in Egyptian tombs, the marble friezes in Greek and Roman temples or the medieval icons and biblical representations.
In the West, art as we think of it today began during the Renaissance, in the 14th century. At that point, a shift occurred in which individuals were recognized for their distinct vision and talent and patrons began collecting what they made more for its creative merits than its educational or emotional function.
From then on, we have always put art on pedestals, eager to raise it higher or shove it off depending on the times and our collective mood. It needed to be judged and evaluated for its aesthetic merits. The result: distance. Art has become something apart, something of a special occasion usually requiring a visit to a museum, which also usually requires a fee.
I endorse the primacy of institutions that collect and care for our heritage and their need to collect funds to do so. And I endorse the importance of critical analysis. It deepens my understanding of a work and a time period. And, oh, by the way, it's my job.
Yet what I have learned is that understanding art isn't the same as loving it in a personal way that affects one's life. We should reintroduce that earlier model of visual expression in which a medium has value for its ability to be a meaningful part of our daily lives. That earliest form of response can live comfortably alongside the scholarship as a partner in engendering pleasure and appreciation.
I'm giving you examples of works that had an immediate visceral impact when I first saw them and continue to elicit a range of emotions. They're all from the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg because it was the first museum I visited as a girl and the one in which I began my long love affair with art. None of them is among the most famous in the collection, and some wouldn't even be considered stars of it. I usually would write about them in a technical way and provide their backstories. But here I visit them as I do old friends. They continually nurture, comfort and delight me. They connect me to millions of my fellow humans long dead or still alive.
Jean Helion, Portrait of Jacques Lusseyran, 1958, oil on canvas
I can't give you a considered reason for this portrait's profound and moving effect on me. From a distance, it's of a handsome man with a thatch of dark hair. He looks down. I anticipate the moment when he'll look up at the artist and, by extension, me. Up close, the painting becomes a patchwork of broad brushstrokes and unexpected colors. The thick planes of paint mitigate what could have been sentimental. He conveys an inexplicable melancholy.
Mictlantecuhtli (God of Death), c. 1100-1500 B.C., ceramic with polychrome
You may not see it but I look at this ancient death deity as a ringer for Homer Simpson. Eccentric and exaggerated characterizations have always been with us. His visage, meant to be fearsome, always makes me smile. Should an art critic admit this?
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Jean-Francois Raffaelli, Man With Two Loaves of Bread, 1879, oil on canvas
I'm reminded of the sadness and hardships people endure daily when I look at this man's countenance full of furtiveness and desperation. I want to step into the painting, stop him and offer help. This work always brings me out of my self-absorption. It humbles me.
Peter Sarkisian, Extruded Video II, 2002, dual-channel video and vacuum-formed thermal plastic
This is my go-to work of art when I need a lift. A still image doesn't do it justice because it's a mad-scientist whirl of movement, sound and color. Yes, it's a serious piece, but I am mesmerized by its antic appeal.
Nagae Shigekazu, Forms in Succession #13, 2010, porcelain
What an astonishing sculpture. Is it a paper origami construction? No. It's porcelain, folded over and slumped, just short of collapsing on itself. By some gravity-defying marvel of craftsmanship, it holds its shape. It seduced me instantly with its elegant form, which suggests simplicity but is complex. It represents survival to me, and I link it to similarly fragile ceramic antiquities from thousands of years ago. I wonder what the world will be like in a thousand more years and whether this sculpture will still be around.
I could give you many more examples but I hope you take my point. I'm with those people who stenciled their hand prints on cave walls as if to say: Remember me. I'm with the anonymous medieval painters who educated an illiterate public with their visual stories of saints and sinners. I'm with the 18th century elitists who wanted their world of new wealth understood and respected as the reward for hard work. And I'm with the people today who buy and love art (as I do) that I will probably never write about because I don't consider it an important part of the world canon.
Mostly, though, I'm really with art.
Contact Lennie Bennett at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293. All photos of art courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.