Upon reading the claim by a New York Times art critic that in looking at a painting “to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial,” the incomparable Tom Wolfe wrote in his book The Painted Word :

Then and there I experienced a flash known as the Aha! Phenomenon, and the buried life of contemporary art was revealed to me for the first time. The fogs lifted! The clouds passed! The motes, scales, conjunctival bloodshot, and Murine agonies fell away!

All these years, along with countless kindred souls, I am certain, I had made my way into the galleries of Upper Madison and Lower Soho and the Art Gildo Midway of Fifty-seventh Street, and into the museums, into the Modern, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim, the Bastard Bauhaus, the New Brutalist, and the Fountainhead Baroque, into the lowliest storefront churches and grandest Robber Baronial temples of Modernism. All these years I, like so many others, had stood in front of a thousand, two thousand, God-knows-how-many thousand Pollocks, de Koonings, Newmans, Nolands, Rothkos, Rauschenbergs, Judds, Johnses, Olitskis, Louises, Stills, Franz Klines, Frankenthalers, Kellys, and Frank Stellas, now squinting, now popping the eye sockets open, now drawing back, now moving closer—waiting, waiting, forever waiting for . . . it . . . for it to come into focus, namely, the visual reward (for so much effort) which must be there, which everyone (tout le monde) knew to be there—waiting for something to radiate directly from the paintings on these invariably pure white walls, in this room, in this moment, into my own optic chiasma. All these years, in short, I had assumed that in art, if nowhere else, seeing is believing. Well—how very shortsighted! Now, at last, on April 28, 1974, I could see. I had gotten it backward all along. Not “seeing is believing,” you ninny, but “believing is seeing,” for Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.


Whether or not Wolfe is right about modern art (he’s usually right about most things), I believe he is on to something in his epiphany that “believing is seeing.” Painting may not exist to illustrate the text, but as a new study reveals , being able to talk about an artwork affects one’s aesthetic perception.
Ayumi Yamada asked half of 129 students to either verbalise their reasons for liking two paintings - one abstract, one representational (Piet Mondrian’s Woods near Oele, shown right, and his New York City, respectively) - or to verbalise their reasons for not liking the paintings. The remaining participants acted as controls and just viewed the paintings without saying anything. Afterwards, all the participants had to say which was their favoured painting.

Representational paintings are realistic, with content that can be easily talked about. Abstract art, by contrast, is less grounded in reality and more tricky to talk about.

The results showed that verbalising their responses to the paintings appeared to distort the participants’ subsequent preferences. Those participants in the verbalisation condition who’d been challenged to say why they liked the paintings were subsequently biased towards choosing the representational painting as their favourite. By contrast, participants in the verbalisation condition who’d been challenged to articulate their reasons for disliking the paintings were subsequently biased towards choosing the abstract painting as their favourite.

What was going on? Yamada thinks that the apparent ease with which we can verbalise our feelings affects our later judgements. Because participants found it easier to talk about why they liked the representational painting compared with the abstract one, this biased them in favour of the representational painting. Similarly, participants who had to talk about their dislike for the art, found this easier for the representational painting, which subsequently biased them against it. (Ref: Yamada, A. (2009). Appreciating art verbally: Verbalization can make a work of art be both undeservedly loved and unjustly maligned. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (5), 1140-1143 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.06.016)


Realistic art makes it easier to verbalize our feelings because we are often able to create a narrative about the work. Indeed, as Wolfe notes, this was one of the features for which modern art sought to correct:

Literary became a code word for all that seemed hopelessly retrograde about realistic art. It probably referred originally to the way nineteenth-century painters liked to paint scenes straight from literature, such as Sir John Everett Millais’s rendition of Hamlet’s intended, Ophelia, floating dead (on her back) with a bouquet of wildflowers in her death grip. In time, literary came to refer to realistic painting in general. The idea was that half the power of a realistic painting comes not from the artist but from the sentiments the viewer hauls along to it, like so much mental baggage. According to this theory, the museum-going public’s love of, say, Jean François Millet’s The Sower has little to do with Millet’s talent and everything to do with people’s sentimental notions about The Sturdy Yeoman. They make up a little story about him.

Wolfe argues in his book that abstraction merely shifts visual art from story to a theory . Each, however, is ultimately dependent on an underlying verbal foundation. Without the ability to vocalize a narrative (even if only internally), we are unable to truly appreciate a visual work.

The Abrahamic faiths have always privileged the word over the image so perhaps it is not surprising that our aesthetic sensibilities would be shaped by narrative. However, since the study was done in Japan, it appears that this may be a universal phenomenon. If so, what does it say about visual representation? Could it be that the key to appreciating visual art is merely learning how to better talk about it?

Articles by Joe Carter

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