“To take a work’s psychic temperature, look at its surface energy.”
– David Salle, How To See, p. 15.
David Salle’s How To See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking About Art is a superb collection of writings about understanding visual art in terms of its intrinsic affective qualities rather than in terms of what it may express about the world or how it fits into a popular theory of interpretation. “Theory abounds, but concrete visual perception is at a low ebb” (2) Salle tells us. The author is an accomplished artist himself and in How To See he draws on his experience to engage with the works of a variety of contemporary artists including Edward Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons, Alex Katz, and many others. Salle’s go-to methodology is to notice, as he takes measure of a piece of art, “what it is you actually find yourself thinking about” (7). Questions flow from here: What makes a work of art tick? What makes it good? What makes it interesting? These questions get us on a path to understanding what Alex Katz aptly describes as an artwork’s “inside energy” (5).
For Salle, an artwork’s qualities exist in a form independent from what the artist may have intended. Moreover, the content of the artwork is more than a sum of cultural signs. The central problem of criticism then, is figuring out how to “talk about art without invoking the ‘isms,’ or resorting to generalities” (5). Where do we turn, Salle asks, to find a vocabulary that communicates what it feels like to see? The essays about artists and their art in How To See offer an informed storytelling by an author whose perceptions are grounded in a lifetime of creating. It’s this grounded experience that leads Salle to say that what reveals an artwork’s nature and quality is “the specific inflection and touch that goes into its making” (15). If any artist’s work is a long-term research project to reconcile form and content (69), then so too is the critic’s long-term project a matter of reconciling content with interpretive form as he or she figures out a way to convey art’s ever-delicate balance of aesthetics and mechanics (113).
At the end of How To See Salle includes a list of thought-provoking exercises for anyone wishing to engage more deeply with art. (As I read I of course thought about how these prompts might apply to musical examples.) Here are four of my favorites that deserve wider sharing:
Build your own analogies. For each work of art, make a sentence that begins “This is a work of art that…” and complete the analogy (244).
Compare and contrast. “Compare two works of art that are stylistically similar but of different intensities” (244).
Similes. Describe a work of art with a sentence that begins “This is a work that puts me in the mind of…” (245).
Where would it feel at home? “Imagine ten works of art of diverse styles and give the ideal place where each would be seen” (246).