Knowledge vs. Wisdom: Using Mindfulness to Connect to Art

If you saw my blog post from February, you’ll have seen that I am incorporating a more spiritual approach to my work as an art advisor; I want to empower my clients to realize they already have the tools to connect to art in profound ways—that is, they need only to cultivate their innate ability of mindfulness to “get” a work of art (to learn more, check out my short tutorial video on Mindfulness & Art). With this mindset, I consider it my duty to cultivate my clients’ mindful understanding of the art, as much as it is my duty to share my expertise on the art.

In essence, I am drawing a distinction between knowledge—information that is learned through study and investigation—and wisdom, which is the type of knowledge learned through (mindful) experience. As an art expert, I can bring my knowledge on such-and-such artist, or historical movement, or provide a market analysis on an artwork. But mindfulness must come from within the client, and so too shall the wisdom s/he gains from an art encounter.

Some art advisors or scholars might scoff at the suggestion that someone could understand art through mindfulness; how ‘woo-woo’! And aren’t I dismissing the importance of scholarship? I would answer with a resounding no: knowledge is powerful, and study is important. I am rather trying to move away from the pretentious elitism that has become synonymous with the art world (literally—if you search “pretentious” on thesaurus.com, “arty” is first on the list), to open up art to those who think it is inaccessible to them. Art is for everybody, and mindfulness is the tool to make it available to everybody.

To illustrate this distinction between intuitive understanding and what can sometimes be the blind pretention of the “experts,” I wanted to share a personal story. A few months ahead of my freshman year at Williams College, I received the thick course catalog to choose my classes for the fall semester. My father, an alumnus of the school, told me that his only regret from his college days was that he never took a course in art history—one of Williams’ most distinguished and famous departments—and he encouraged me to take a class. My family always put great value in the arts, and we took regular trips to New York City to take in museum shows, theater, and the occasional ballet. But I had no formal training or understanding of art, and it sounded interesting. So, I took his advice and enrolled in Art History 101 for my freshman fall term, which covered a survey of architecture. By the time we got to the gothic cathedrals of Europe, I knew I was hooked. I eagerly signed up for part two of Art History 101 in the spring semester—a survey of painting and sculpture. By the time spring rolled around, I knew I wanted to major in art history.

Early in the spring term, we were assigned a formal analysis paper. A formal analysis is a discussion of a work of art based solely on what you see—the color, brushwork, style, composition, etc. (these are called the “formal qualities” of a work of art). We were given strict instructions that we could not look up anything about the artist or artwork we were assigned, beyond the bare bones of the artist’s name, the artwork’s title, and its size and medium. If there was evidence we had done research, we would essentially get an F.

I was assigned an oil on cardboard work by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec called Jane Avril (1891-92), in the collection of the Clark Art Institute, the world-class museum in our sleepy little college town. Fueled by my newfound love of art, I walked to the Clark with excited anticipation to take in this artwork: what I encountered was a half-length portrait of a woman, dressed in a purple cape overcoat with a fur trim. Her grand, high collar cradled a long, white-painted face, framed by flat yellow hair, which was, in turn, crowned with a lavish hat, replete with feathers, drawn in rich blue and green hues. Hurried green and blue strokes surrounded the figure, but the artist also left much of the cardboard ground exposed.

T-L Jane Avril-1955.566
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1891-92, Oil on laminate cardboard, mounted on panel, 24 7/8 x 16 5/8 in. (63.2 x 42.2 cm). Collection of the Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute.

I did not know who Jane Avril was. At that point, I don’t even think I knew who Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was, either—we hadn’t gotten to post-Impressionism yet. But that was the point: just take in the art, and justify your conclusions based on what you see. I looked at her outfit: she must be outside, as she’s wearing an overcoat and hat. If she’s outside, the falling blue and green paint strokes could be rain, then, I thought. With few details in the work, I spent a long time studying her face. Her facial features were severe: a sharp, pointy chin; thin, pursed lips, painted bright red; a sharp nose leading to small, beady eyes under heavy, swollen lids. I followed her gaze, which was directed off to her left to a strong light source, unseen to the viewer. If she’s outside, perhaps it’s the headlights of a car, or possibly a street lamp, I thought. Were cars invented by 1891? Well, not sure I can look it up…Oh well, whatever the source, the light was harsh and unforgiving.

Ultimately, I concluded, this was not a flattering portrait: this woman looked haggard, and her sharp features were downright unattractive. The raking light cast shadows in the bags under her weary eyes, and made her face look gaunt. Her high, arched eyebrows and pursed lips gave her tired expression a hint of haughtiness. As she seemed finely dressed, perhaps this was an upper-class woman, putting on airs. But, with her averted gaze, she also seemed preoccupied—her mind somewhere else, off in the lights to her left. Whoever this Jane Avril was, she had seen better days.

I sat in front of the work for an hour and a half. Only recently did I realize that this time spent in front of the work was a practice in mindfulness; I was solely focused on the artwork, staying in the present moment—just me and the art. Through awareness, presence, patience and compassion—a true commitment to feel and understand the work—I unpacked the work’s meaning through mindfulness. I wrote a paper that I was immensely proud of—it was well-written, and well-argued. Nailed it, I thought.

A few weeks later we got our papers back, and I was devastated to see I had gotten a B- on the paper. As an overachieving nerd, I was unaccustomed to Bs, but I was especially shocked because as a pre-art history major, I was so invested in the subject. I requested to meet with the professor for my section to discuss my grade.

“Jane Avril was a friend of Toulouse-Lautrec’s—he wouldn’t paint an unflattering portrait of her,” this professor (who shall remain nameless) said. I was flabbergasted. I walked her through each formal quality to justify my argument. “Jane Avril was a performer at the Moulin Rouge,” she retorted. “She’s wearing heavy makeup for the stage, and that bright light is the stage lights.” I pointed out to her that every single fact she just stated was based on research that I was not allowed to do. How could I know Jane Avril was a stage performer? In the portrait, she’s dressed to be outside, so if the light is stage light, it must be symbolic. There’s no logical way I could conclude those are stage lights based on the artwork alone! And besides, these facts still didn’t detract from my primary argument: this still was an unflattering portrait of a haggard woman. But the professor refused to acknowledge my arguments, and, of course, refused to change my grade.

In the professor’s eyes, I didn’t “get” the artwork because I did not conclude that this woman was a cabaret performer. Nearly twenty years later, I still think the professor was wrong. I would argue that I absolutely “got it:” Henri Toulouse-Lautrec painted a portrait of an exhausted woman who is not present with the viewer, because she’s lost in a haze of her thoughts. If you know the context of who Jane Avril was, then those details begin to flesh out one’s understanding: she’s exhausted because she performs cabaret late into the night. So, she is dressed in her coat because she’s likely leaving the theater in the early hours of the morning, and she’s drained. The context of knowing Jane Avril’s identity helps explain her puffy eyes and tired expression, but at the end of the day, as the viewer, all you see are the puffy eyes and tired expression. There are almost no other details in the painting, other than her face. The fact that she’s a cabaret performer is ancillary.

In fact, the fact that we are not seeing Jane Avril on stage only underscores that this is a psychological portrait—that is, Toulouse-Lautrec is more interested in her interior mood offstage, not Jane-Avril-The-Performer. Compare this work, for instance, to many other depictions of Jane Avril by Toulouse-Lautrec: he created several works in which Avril is on stage singing with arms open wide, or dancing, with legs flailing. Obviously, we can conclude that she’s a performer in those! In the work at the Clark Art Institute, however, her body is hidden, contained by the heavy coat. Her expression is withdrawn, and again—tired. This is not Jane Avril of the stage.

In a more complete painting from about the same time (1892) called Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec again depicts Avril outside, in street clothes, by herself. Like the portrait from the Clark, this is a psychological portrait: without the descriptive title, you would not know who she is or what she does. The focus is on her mood: she seems lost in thought, and there’s a loneliness to her countenance as she walks the street by herself. The portrait at the Clark Art Institute is closer to this work than any of Toulouse-Lautrec’s depictions of her onstage.

Lautrec_jane_avril_leaving_the_moulin_rouge_1892
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, 1892, oil on cardboard, 28 3/4 x 21 1/4 inches. Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.

Can I feel my ego seeking vindication even twenty years, later? OK, yes (settle down, ego!). But my point, ultimately, is to use this example to draw the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Learning the context of the work of art—i.e. obtaining knowledge through research and scholarship—can greatly enhance your understanding. My professor, as a scholar, searches for truth through research and investigation. But her mistake is that she believed that enlightenment only comes through acquiring the investigative knowledge—that is, without properly identifying Jane Avril as a performer, I must not have understood the painting.

In actuality, the fact that Jane Avril was a cabaret star was hardly the point of the portrait; the actual purpose of the painting was to portray an introspective moment for a weary woman at the end of a long night of work. And I did get that—I understood the painting on an intuitive level, without knowing who Jane Avril was. Why? Because she’s human, and I’m human, and I recognized the universal experience we share. And this is an illustration of wisdom: knowledge acquired through the mindful experience of being human. Knowledge and wisdom are complementary forces, and important to our understanding of the world.

I firmly believe that if you sit down in front of a work of art and apply the principles of mindfulness—that is, if you stay present, in the moment; maintain awareness; have patience and take your time (it could take hours!); and endeavor for compassionate understanding—the meaning of that work of art will likely reveal itself to you. You will “get it.” There may be historical, cultural or social references that you won’t catch based solely on what you see, but with a truly good work of art, its truth will transcend those limitations, and you will still understand the truth of the artwork.

And what is that truth? All art is an expression of our higher selves, and when we experience a work of art and truly “get it,” we are seeing our reflection of our higher selves. And it is a beautiful, transcendental feeling.

On Spirituality & Art: Avant-Garde Art Advisory’s New Mission

If you’ve been to my website before, you might notice a few changes to the look and language of the site…well, Avant-Garde’s art advisory has refined our mission, and I wanted to take this opportunity to explain in greater detail what inspired this new direction, and what it means. (Note the appraisal arm of my business remains the same!)

In 2019, I was suffering some stress in regards to my business. Some people recommended therapy or medication, and while those solutions can have their merits, I wanted something more sustainable: I sought a spiritual-wellness practice that would help bring some balance and harmony to my life. I listened to the wisdom of several spiritual leaders and thought leaders from various backgrounds and affiliations: from Buddhist monks to Christian pastors, spiritual gurus to enlightened doctors and academics. Some consistent (and perhaps self-evident) themes were that 1) we are all one. The racial, cultural, or political differences between us are an illusion; and 2) nearly everyone lauded the benefits of meditation, because it focuses our awareness in the present. We only exist in the present moment, the here and now.

It was not long after that I had an epiphany: wait a minute…art is my spiritual practice!

Cezanne-Still Life w Apples Getty
Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples, c. 1893-94 (Getty Center, Los Angeles)

Experiencing art is an intuitive practice in mindfulness—it is about presence, compassion, and awakening to that greater “oneness.” When I spend a few hours at a museum or gallery-hopping in Chelsea, I enter a contemplative state akin to meditation: I am present with the art, and I am in a heightened state of awareness. I feel abundant peace and calm at the end of my art outing, and that’s because art is a physical manifestation of a higher consciousness, or awareness. Artists are like shamans: they tap into that higher awareness and put it into form, to share it with us. That is why the best art has something a little unknowable about it…a veil of otherworldliness to it.

Mark Rothko - Untitled
Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1952

Several spiritual leaders and scholars have lauded art as an expression of our higher spiritual selves, such as proponents of the Baha’i faith, Joseph Campbell, Josef Pieper, and Eckhart Tolle, to name just a few. And of course, countless artists have conceptualized their own creations as serving the spiritual, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko, Anish Kapoor and Marina Abramovic, to name a few. It is important to clarify, however, that I am not advocating for a category of “spiritual art”—that is, spiritual or divine forces do not need to be the subject of a work of art for it to be spiritually resonant (and honestly, much of what you see online that is described as “spiritual art” tends to be way too literal and just…blech). You can have a transcendental experience with an Expressionist painting, Greek sculpture, street photograph, Chinese scroll, video installation—truly, any and all good* art is ripe for a spiritual experience (*the question of what is constitutes “good art” is an age-old question and unfortunately, too complicated to get into at present…).

With so many other great thinkers before me commenting on the spirituality of art, you may be wondering, So Emily, what makes your great epiphany so special? You’re obviously not the first person to think of art in spiritual terms.

Well, there’s two reasons I think Avant-Garde’s revamped mission is timely and novel.

First, I believe that many in the art world have lost touch with the true meaning and power of art, because the industry has been corrupted by avarice and materialism. The .01 percent has put their megawatt spending power into the trendiest artists, but this has actually had detrimental implications for the rest of the art market. Prices for blue-chip artists have skyrocketed out of control; in light of the multimillion-dollar records broken every auction season, “merely affluent” buyers “assume the $50,000 work they can afford is not worth buying,” the New York Times reported last year. Without these buyers, smaller galleries have been closing, or losing their best artists to what art critic Jerry Saltz calls the “Mega Death Star” galleries that cater to the super-rich. It is increasingly clear that only the .01 percent of buyers, galleries, and artists are benefitting from this apparently “flourishing” art market.

Jeff Koons - Rabbit
Jeff Koons’ Rabbit sold at auction in May 2019 for over $91 million.

All this is to say that I feel the corruptive forces of money have created a top-heavy art market that does not honor the true, transcendental purpose of art: to bring us closer to our higher selves. Avant-Garde seeks to counter the art world’s materialism by encouraging our collectors to first and foremost connect to art on a deeper, intuitive level, and support artists and galleries that resonate with them, regardless of their art-world status. And rather than conceiving of art-buying as “collecting” art—a rather possessive and egotistic notion—we encourage buyers to think of themselves as art caretakers or hosts, welcoming the art into their space like an honored guest that will share its beauty and wisdom.

We encourage buyers to think of themselves as art caretakers or hosts, welcoming the art into their space like an honored guest that will share its beauty and wisdom.

The second reason I believe Avant-Garde’s mission is unique is that, quite simply, I do not know any arts professional that has ever addressed how to have a spiritual connection to a work of art. Put another way: any talk of spirituality in art tends to be an armchair intellectual exercise. In graduate school, for instance, I read artist Wassily Kandinsky’s 1910 treatise On the Spiritual in Art; we discussed it in the classroom, and wrote response papers addressing its philosophical points. But my professor never encouraged us to stand before a Kandinsky and really try to internalize his message, and write about that feeling. I do not mean to discredit the academic community, or dismiss the intellectual value of art, which is important. But no amount of reading about the spirituality of art will ever approximate the direct experience of it. Or, to quote artist Marina Abramovic: “Nobody’s life is changed by somebody else’s experiences. I want more from the public. I want them to be involved and to go through changes as I do.”[1]

Abramovic - TheArtistisPresent
Marina Abramovic, The Artist is Present, performance piece at the Museum of Modern Art, 2010.

The truth is that you do not need a PhD in art history to “get” a work of art. Anyone can have a spiritual experience of a work of art if they apply the principles of mindfulness: presence, awareness, and compassion. Avant-Garde works with our clients to cultivate mindful contemplation of art; we encourage collectors to begin from an intuitive experience of art, to which we add our art historical and market expertise. In service of this mission, I will also be offering contemplative art tours each month, and speaking engagements that can bring a mindful art experience to your community, conference, or even office lunch hours.

The goal of life is rapture. Art is the way we experience it.
–Joseph Campbell

The most beautiful thing is that the benefits of a mindful art interaction go far beyond the walls of your lived spaces: you’ll find yourself bringing that mindfulness into the rest of your life—heightening your awareness as you walk down the street, noticing beautiful details of the world you hadn’t noticed before. If you find yourself inspired by our message, please contact Avant-Garde to see how we can work together. Whether you’re a complete novice to art or spirituality, we’d love to cultivate your interest in both.

Peace, Love, and Art,

Signature

Emily Casden, Director

[1] “Toward a Pure Energy,” Germano Celant in conversation with Marina Abramovic, in Germano Celant, Marina Abramovic, Public Body: Installations and Objects, 1965–2001, Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2001, p. 17.