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Can Cy Twombly be Trusted?
We look at a physicist's incomprehensible equations and assume there is meaning to them. Why can’t we do the same with all forms of art?

Artist Cy Twombly holds perhaps the most unenviable distinction in all of modern and contemporary art. Twombly's paintings, perhaps more than any artist that one is sure to encounter in the collections and galleries of major museums throughout the world, are frequently lavished with such flattering phrases as "My four-year-old could do that," "That sold for how much?" or the more simple and aggressive declaration, "That's not art." Never mind that Twombly's expressive, calligraphic paintings seek to reflect in some way the sub-textual complexity of seemingly simple, classical allegories; it is his ambiguous, child-like mark making, employed in the exploration of Mediterranean mythology, that seems to leave wide open the door of that wardrobe within which the newer garments of the emperor allegedly hang.

Image of a blackboard with mathematical formulae.

My purpose here is not to defend Twombly's work in any detail, but what interests me is how reactions to his paintings, whether founded or not, expose commonly held assumptions about art that can actually interfere with properly engaging and even participating in making it. For some reason, unknowns in art seem to generate much more impassioned, visceral reactions than, say, unknowns in mathematics and physics. When Stephen Hawking tells me that he has mathematically arrived at the existence of miniature black holes in deep space, and has the equation to prove it, I just believe him. Of course, it is possible that both Twombly and Hawking are off base, and that each has made a terrible error within their discipline at some point, but why do we tend to trust the theoretical physicist, and not the artist?

A comparison between the artist's canvas and the physicist's blackboard can be a fruitful one, and it can expose certain assumptions about the way we think the world works. To a general audience of non-experts like myself, the physicist's intricate equations are entirely impenetrable. Yet when I happen upon one, say while wandering through the science building at a university, I begin with the assumption that there is something concrete undergirding the mystery that the marks themselves are. I assume that what I am looking at is meaningful. Why is it then, when a general audience encounters an artist's work—such as Cy Twombly's—they frequently assumes that they are being duped into the delusion of acknowledging as meaningful something without substance?

To approach the question from another angle, I can relate an observation from experience in art higher education. The most frequent reason I encounter for a student declining my invitation to take a drawing or sculpture class is that they cannot draw or sculpt well. Imagine that! Somehow, within art, already being good at something emerges as a prerequisite for learning it. If that doesn't sound strange enough, imagine declining to begin piano lessons because you don't play the piano. Of course you don't. That's what piano lessons are for. The underlying assumption in art's case is that visual art is not really a learned discipline, and that only innately talented people rightly practice it. It assumes an absence of objective, discoverable elements, principles, theories and history that the average person can study, acquire and apply toward understanding artworks, or making their own images.

Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1970. Abstract, calligraphy drawing in black. Source: University of California, San Diego.

The truth behind this assumption, of course, is that art does operate, as well, beyond the senses, and beyond observable, scientifically verifiable "fact," just as much of what Christians believe—the mysteries of the faith, the incomprehensible reality of God's incarnation, Christ's death, resurrection, ascension and present rule at the Father's right hand—also exists on a level of reality that must be embraced within the Spirit-initiated paradigm of faith, and without sensory assistance. Knowing, in these cases, is something different from our ability to wrap our mind and senses around the thing that is known.

In a way, I must approach the physics blackboard and the existence of black holes from the same perspective. For that matter, I could say the same about economics, accounting, law or any other discipline whose specialized knowledge goes beyond my own. Perhaps it's a ledger sheet or a judge's complex opinion rather than a massive, chalk-scrawled code. All of these unlock the realities of the truths and principles that lie beneath their surface. I suppose I do a little domestic accounting whenever I balance my checkbook, but I have to avoid dismissing the more complex work of my friend the Certified Public Accountant.

The beauty of art is that the invitation for the viewer to bring their own imagination into the process of understanding is inherent in the very act of making objects and images. In spite of how straightforward it may seem, even looking at a recognizable painting requires that viewer relinquish their grasp, for a moment, of what they know—that this scene they encounter is really an instance of ground minerals, suspended in an oily paste, and smeared around in a particular arrangement on a woven cotton fabric using animal hair attached to the end of a stick—in favour of "seeing" what these materials point toward. I allow my imagination to be fascinated by black holes, though they have only ever been known through functions, integers and variables. I choose to conjure images of giant swirling voids of India ink, as opposed to dusty, scribbled pieces of slate, but when I do this, even the mysterious equations inherit a new kind of beauty in my mind and eye.

This same freedom to imagine what cannot be seen is present in any work of art, including Cy Twombly's. Yes, in order to do so, we have to trust that the artist is not simply trying to deceive a gullible public, and is making an honest exploration into unseen realities with the best means that he or she sees fit to use. But if we are willing to allow that assumption, and give this more difficult artwork a little of our time, it can be a profoundly rewarding exercise of the imagination. I have to do this with my four-year-old daughter, and wonder about the motivation behind her mysterious and spontaneous aesthetic decisions when I set her loose on a blank piece of paper, with a full spectrum of hues and media at her disposal. As we begin to wonder not just what marks and colours make, but also what marks and colours mean, and then what they mean to a particular person, we open ourselves up to the possibility of seeing more deeply into treasures of our Creator's cosmos than we ever have before.

Yes. In fact, my child did do that. And it too was wonderful.

Originally published in Comment, May 8, 2009.

Used with permission. Copyright © 2009





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