A Preference For The Loss Of “Distance” When Viewing Art

Close up of a Rembrandt

As a painter myself, I choose to view paintings from about six inches. Above is a how I’d view a Rembrandt. If you speak to museum docents, they can tell exactly who the painters are. Painters stick their face right up next to the canvas peering intensely in every direction. What we painters are trying to see is how the paint is applied and layered. We want to steal any secrets our colleagues might be hiding. It’s all very analytical.

Strangely, that process is called distancing. Being so close the painting and looking at the physical properties, I’m not as likely to experience the transcendental properties of the work as a whole. Allan Casebier states there are two types of distancing: attentional and emotional. Attentional distancing has to do with what you are and aren’t paying attention to. Emotional distancing is more about how you are feeling in relation to the work. They seem like they point to detachment, but not really. A viewer can be very honed in, but yet still be distanced.

Historians and theorists tend to believe that distancing is the best way to objectively observe a work of art. That way you can be more critical of its quality and placement in the long history of art movements.

But something gets lost in the distancing. For the longest, I haven’t responded to paintings in the same way I did as a student. Back then, paintings would overwhelm me. I remember seeing Cy Twombly’s retrospective and being in utter awe. I think my jaw actually sat agape. Now however, I’d probably analyze the work for a brief period of time and rush right up to see how he applied his crazy paint. It’s almost like by being an expert in the field (in my own mind) I rob myself of the emotional impact of the work.

So now I’m into installation art. I think I am because I’m not a specialist in that domain. Even though I’m interested in how the work is created, I become much more engaged in the transcendental nature of the work itself—for now.

One thought on “A Preference For The Loss Of “Distance” When Viewing Art

  1. When I was 28 years old a resurfaced Rembrandt fell into my care for 3 months, (a strange destiny).
    I studied it with awe trying to figure out ‘How WAS this painted?’ repeated copying it had to make it give up its secrets for the young artist. ( I hid it in plain view behind a cheap Pier One painting;)

    Late one night as I was copying it, I remembered what my mentor once said:
    “Be respectful when you paint, for all the Great Masters are watching you.”
    So, I wondered aloud (to the Masters), “Tell me about this Painting.”

    Suddenly an answer came back: “…you fool, Rembrandt did not have incandescent lights when he painted!”

    I lit a kerosene lamp and shut off the light
    The black darkened background behind the portrait became a beautifully colored landscape. with
    100’s of layers of pure pigment rarified by his coveted lost medium!!

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