Presentational Art vs. Representational Art

Making the most of a trip to the museum.
Apr 21, 2015

Last week, I led a class of twenty-two sophomores to the Met in New York, and in the days which followed, I have returned often to this familiar teaching of St. Paul:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.

In the past, when discussing the relationship between this verse and beauty, I have focused on the words true, noble, right, pure, lovely and so forth. What makes a thing noble? What makes a thing lovely? However, lately I’ve been thinking on the command itself. Think about such things. It is worthwhile to note what St. Paul does not say. He does not say “look at such things,” or “listen to such things.” Granted, it is hard to think about something which is lovely if you have not first seen it or heard it, though the logic of the verse suggests that thinking on such things is the more expansive and time-consuming work. It might take half an hour to take in El Greco’s “Christ Carrying the Cross,” but thinking on the painting is an endless task.

Why “think,” though? Why not “listen” or “look”? Why is thinking sufficient?

There is a temptation among educators to want the value of leading expeditions to museums confirmed immediately. Such trips can be costly, and the petty distractions and affairs of the world are always pressing on us. We want confirmation that our students saw El Greco or Monet, that they listened to Strauss or Bach, and that they understood such art was obviously superior to the sensual pop culture to which they regularly expose themselves. We stand in the museum and gesture at Renaissance art and say, “Isn’t it remarkable how this plays upon the soul? What does this painting mean? What is Fra Angelico doing here?”

And when we leave the museum, we return to the hotel or the classroom and quickly want to discuss. “Wasn’t it amazing? Wasn’t Raphael remarkable? There’s nothing quite like it, is there? What did seeing that painting do for you? How did it move you?” Often enough, students simply perform the pantomime of being impressed. They have been on their feet all day, they are exhausted, and so they remark, “It was all pretty overwhelming. It was beautiful. I feel so privileged at being able to see all those paintings. I felt closer to God when looking at that Annunciation scene.” While all such statements might be true, they are also simplistic, platitudinous, and they have little to do with St. Paul’s teaching on how we ought to engage with the transcendent God as He reveals Himself in finite matter.

I am trading in highly debatable and problematic terms, though I'd like to chance a simple thesis: the difference between good art and sensual trash is principally seen in the responses any given piece calls forth from us. Sensual trash can only be discussed immediately afterwards, while good art can only be discussed at a much later point.

Chances are good you’ve heard two people try to talk about sensual, ugly art. Take Transformers 3, for example, a film in which a dopey everyman and a lingerie model must help beneficent alien robots keep malevolent alien robots from destroying Chicago, and, to the titillation of the audience, largely fail to do so. The film is presented in 3D Imax, godlike in size, and as Anthony Lane once put it, “the only way to match its median sound level would be to blow up a trombone factory.” When the film is up for discussion, probably among the young men in your life, what kinds of comments are you apt to hear?

“The part where the snake robot destroys that skyscraper was awesome.”

“The part where the one robot cuts off the head of that other robot was awesome.”

“There part where the car robot turns into a regular robot and then back into a car robot was awesome.”

Let us grant that such claims are not merely the way that the young and immature discuss such a film, but that even two persons with Guggenheim fellowships would discuss the film in like manner if they were being honest and not trying to impress one another. To say that Transformers 3 is sublime is not much of a value judgement, but a statement of fact. The film is simply very, very big and loud and any enjoyment the audience takes in it is mixed with a feeling of physical intimidation not unlike encountering a drunk Shaquille O’Neal.

The aforementioned conversation (“The part where… was awesome”) is not an attempt to represent the film, but a presentation of the film again. Put another way, the young men are not really thinking about the film, but watching it again, listening to it again. What they are doing is not terribly different than popping in a DVD of the film and seeing it a second time. To present the film again with mere words is vexing, though, because no amount of pure discussion can match the sensual experience of seeing the film, and so such conversations often conclude with resolutions to see the film again soon. For this reason, a big deal is made of the release of sensual blockbusters, and some stores stay open until midnight on the release date so the film can be seen again as quickly as possible. Seeing the film again quickly is the best way to fill the awkward intellectual silence the film creates.

Presentational art is materialistic. It plays to the eyes, to the ears, but not the mind. Presentational art is created by tyrrants who lack the love to liberate their creations. The creator of presentational art refuses to retreat from his work, refuses to rest from his work, and is not curious about his own art. The presentational artist does not give his creation a sabbath because, as pure material, the creation is pure object. We give our servants and animals a sabbath, but not our beds and cups and saucers. Presentational knows only the foreordained conclusion and is incapable of surprise. Presentational art always tends towards inevitability, and inevitability is the foundation of ugliness. 

On the other hand, two people talking about The Grand Budapest Hotel or Magnolia are generally not saying, “The part where… was awesome,” and not because they believe the film is without awesome moments, but because their conversation aims not to present the film anew, but to represent the film, recreate the film, resurrect the film as a more perfect and glorious story. A conversation about Magnolia is also far more likely to be filled with questions.

“Did you notice…?”

“What did so-and-so mean when he said…?”

“Why did so-and-so not…?”

“What did you think of…?”

Sensual art prompts few questions. On the other hand, I have been speaking with friends about Magnolia off and on ever since I saw the film in 1999, and I’ve probably had more conversations about the film in the last five years than in the ten which followed my first viewing, though I haven’t seen Magnolia since I married some time ago and I don’t have plans to see it again anytime soon. Talking about the film does not inspire within me a desire to see it, but rather to talk about it more and hear others talk about it. While Magnolia is exceedingly vulgar, I would brave the opinion that it is the noblest film of the last generation, thus St. Paul would not have me see it again, but rather to think about it.

To return to the art museum, the student who has seen the works of El Greco and listened to the music of Bach has not fulfilled St. Paul’s command yet. While some degree of thinking can be performed in the presence of the painting, or in the moment of the music, such evaluations often involve an intrusion of the self into a moment of (what could be) blissful self-forgetfulness. When I am in front of an El Greco, I don’t want to remember I am a subject before an object, judging or praising or censuring that object. Until the music is over, or until I walk away from the El Greco painting, I have not finished taking it in. Thinking about the painting while still gazing at it is a way of cutting the painting off, telling the painting it is done talking, that you have had enough of it and now it is your turn.

Let us allow that thinking and looking are often two very different and mutually exclusive tasks. As Lewis notes somewhere, the myth of Orpheus reveals the impossibility of performing a task and reflecting on it at the same time. You can hold and not see, or see and not hold.

The student who is hesitant to speak of the great beauty he has just seen might simply want to lead Eurydice a little closer to the light that he might see her face more clearly. Paradoxically, you cannot think about a painting until you've spent quite awhile not thinking about it, but simply opening yourself up to it. 

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs. 

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or it's leadership.

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