From November 17, Patricia Thornley’s work The Western, part of her series THIS IS US, is on view as part of the group exhibition “Empathy” at Smack Mellon Gallery in Brooklyn, New York. The project is the latest in a seven-year series of installation and single-channel video works consisting of interviews and performances. Previous videos of the series are An American in Bavaria (2011), Don’t Cry for Me(2013), and Sang Real (2015). As a whole, THIS IS US formulates multiple parallel inquiries into the collaborative fantasies Americans enact through popular media. In the current political climate, as the escalation of social and economic forces impacting millions of lives is cast into increasingly sharp relief, these fantasies take on new urgency and, in many cases, a new absurdity.
The Western’s cast of characters consists of these Civil War-era archetypes: Indian Scout, Beast of Burden, Frontiersman, Savage, Deserter, Justice, and Drifter. The work is conceived as a two-part installation in which the cinematic trope of the Western is used as a framework for inquiring into the American psyche. In the exhibition space, a projected “movie” is installed opposite a wall of screens playing a series of interviews with the seven participating characters.
Andrea Scrima: Patricia, a few years ago I conducted an interview with you about a previous work of yours, Sang Real (2015), for the online poetry magazine Lute & Drum. Now, with The Western, the overall structure of THIS IS US is coming more and more clearly into focus. The last time we spoke at length about your series was a year and a half before the last presidential election. How have recent changes on the political landscape affected your approach to the themes in your work?
Patricia Thornley: From the beginning in the THIS IS US series, one of the questions I asked in my interviews with the people who featured in the individual videos was “how do you feel about being an American?” Historically, there’s always been a certain political disconnect at play with Americans, due to less armed conflict on our own soil and a certain comfort level. Read more »
Novels set in New York and Berlin of the 1980s and 1990s, in other words, just as subculture was at its apogee and the first major gentrification waves in various neighborhoods of the two cities were underway—particularly when they also try to tell the coming-of-age story of a young art student maturing into an artist—these novels run the risk of digressing into art scene cameos and excursions on drug excess. In her novel A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil, second edition 2018), Andrea Scrima purposely avoids effects of this kind. Instead, she concentrates on quietly capturing moments that illuminate her narrator’s ties to the locations she’s lived in and the lives she’s lived there.
When she looks back over more than fifteen years from the vantage of the early 2000s and revisits an era of personal and political upheaval, it’s not an ordering in the sense of a chronological sequence of life events that the narrator is after. Her story pries open chronology and resists narration, much in the way that memories refuse to follow a linear sequence, but suddenly spring to mind. Only gradually, like the small stones of a mosaic, do they join to form a whole.
In 1984, a crucial change takes place in the life of the 24-year-old art student: a scholarship enables her to move from New York to West Berlin. Language, identity, and place of residence change. But it’s not her only move from New York to Berlin; in the following years, she shuttles back and forth between Germany and the US multiple times. The individual sections begin with street names in Kreuzberg, Williamsburg, and the East Village: Eisenbahnstrasse, Bedford Avenue, Ninth Street, Fidicinstrasse, and Kent Avenue. The novel takes on an oscillating motion as the narrator circles around the coordinates of her personal biography. In an effort of contemplative remembrance, she seeks out the places and objects of her life, and in describing them, concentrating on them, she finds herself. The extraordinary perception and precision with which these moments of vulnerability, melancholy, loss, and transformation are described are nothing less than haunting and sensuous, enigmatic and intense. Read more »
Probably. Possible. Perhaps. Indicative. Researchers routinely use such suggestives in scientific manuscripts, because they acknowledge the limitations of the inferences and conclusions one can make when analyzing scientific data. The results of individual experiments are often open to multiple interpretations and therefore do not lend themselves to making definitive pronouncements. Cell biologists, for example, may test the role of molecular signaling pathways and genes which regulate the cellular functions by selectively deleting individual genes. However, we are also aware of the limitations inherent in this reductionist approach. Even though gene deletion studies allow us to study the potential roles of selected genes, we know that several hundred genes act in concert to orchestrate a cellular function. The role of each gene needs to be interpreted in the broader context of their role in this cellular orchestra. It is therefore not possible to claim that one has identified the definitive cause of cell growth or cell survival. Addressing causality is a challenge in biological research because so many biological phenomena are polycausal.
This does not mean that we cannot draw any conclusions in cell biology. Quite the contrary, being aware of the limitations of our tools and approaches forces us to grapple with the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent in scientific experimentation. Repeat experiments and statistical analyses allow researchers to quantify the degree of uncertainty for any given set of studies. When the results of scientific experiments are replicated and confirmed by other research groups, we can become increasingly confident of our findings. However, we also do not lose sight of the complexity of nature and are aware of the fact that scientific tools and approaches will likely change over time and uncover new depths of knowledge that could substantially expand or challenge even our most dearly held scientific postulates. Instead of being frustrated by the historicity of scientific discovery, we are humbled by the awe-inspiring complexity of our world. On the other hand, it is difficult to disregard an increasing trend in contemporary science to obsess about the novelty of scientific findings. A recent study analyzed the abstracts of biomedical research papers published in the years 1974-2014 and found that during the 30 year time period, there was an 880% (nine-fold) increase in verbiage conveying positivity and certainty using words such as “amazing”, “assuring”, “reassuring”, “enormous”, “robust” or “unprecedented”.
Why are some scientists abandoning the more traditional language of science which emphasizes the probabilistic and historical nature of scientific discovery? Read more »
Beauty is not solely in the eye of the beholder so I argued last month. This month I can't resist taking on the other platitude that harms our understanding of beauty—that beauty is only skin deep.
The word "beauty" has fallen on hard times in the art world despite occasional signs of a revival. Yet, in everyday conversation the word "beauty" is so ubiquitous it has fallen into cliché. Perhaps these two phenomena are related. It is routine to say a flower is beautiful; and almost all flowers would seem to qualify regardless of how ordinary. But that just reduces the concept of "beauty" to meaninglessness. I want to rescue the term by arguing that to grasp the nature of beauty we need an aesthetics of depth, not of surfaces, which is to say that beauty is not skin deep.
There is, it would seem, an obvious counter example to my thesis. I suspect the word "beauty" is most often applied to women largely because throughout history most people who publicly wrote about or depicted beauty were men. And this seems to apply to physical features especially in the way the beauty industry uses the term. But this is not because beauty is superficial; it is because beauty is an object of longing, especially the kind of "ideal", unattainable beauty portrayed by the beauty industry. It's the depth of something out of reach, illusive, a consummate idealization, of satisfaction infinitely deferred that is at work in this form of allure. The whole process of cosmetics is to make something desirable and is thus no longer only about appearances but rather something more subterranean.
The idea that beauty is about superficial qualities readily apparent in our experience is an assumption adopted by much of modern aesthetics since Kant and Hume. Aesthetic experience is made possible by a bundle of qualities and if the qualities are alluring enough we call the object beautiful. Yet to report that a painting is red, rectangular, depicting figures of a certain shape, and suitable for hanging tells us nothing about its aesthetic appeal.
Over the past several months I've been writing about creativity in the arts, a project motivated by skepticism among philosophers that winemaking could legitimately be considered an art form. (See Part 1, and here, here, and here)
As Burham and Skilleas write on the decisions made in the vineyard and winery:
These decisions are intentions certainly and wine is also a product of human artifice. However, it is not intention in the same sense as a painter might have when he approaches a blank canvas. Vintner's decisions have only a very tenuous connection with expression in the arts which is typically expressions of aesthetic intention, feeling, and the like…Wine is not as malleable to intention as paint and the most important factor beyond the vintner's control is the weather. Try as they might few vintners can remove the sensory impact of the vintage. (The Aesthetics of Wine, p. 99-100)
Burnham and Skilleas seem to think that although winemakers have intentions they are not about aesthetics. This is a questionable assertion. There are countless decisions made by winemakers and their teams in the vineyard and winery that influence the intensity, harmony, finesse, and elegance of the final product and are intended to do so.
Burham and Skilleas go on to insist that "a vintner is simply not to be understood on the model of Kantian or Romantic aesthetics of fine art for whom originality or creativity are absolutely central features." Again, this is a questionable assertion, although it may be true of commodity wines. As James Frey, proprietor of Tristaetum Winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley and an accomplished artist as well as winemaker, told me in an interview: "Originality matters a great deal. No winemaker wants to hear that his wines taste like those of the winery down the street." Originality and creativity are central concerns of at least those winemakers for whom quality is the primary focus.
Among the most striking developments in the art world in the past 150 years is the proliferation of objects that count as works of art. The term “art” is no longer appropriately applied only to paintings, sculpture, symphonic music, literature or theatre but includes architecture, photographs, film and television, found objects, assorted musical genres, conceptual works, environments, etc. The Museum of Modern Art in New York proudly displays a Jaguar XKE roadster as a work of art. As Jacques Rancière writes regarding the modernist aesthetic that begins to emerge in the 18th Century:
“The aesthetic regime asserts the absolute singularity of art and, at the same time, destroying any pragmatic criterion for isolating this singularity. It simultaneously establishes the autonomy of art and the identity of its forms with the forms that life uses to shape itself.”*
Rancière argues that with the proliferation of objects that now count as art, contemporary art is neither autonomous from nor fully absorbed into everyday life but occupies a borderland between the everyday and the extraordinary that is art's function to continually negotiate. Art is about having a certain kind of aesthetic experience; it is no longer about a particular kind of object.
Wine is among the most prevalent of everyday objects that have no function except to provide an aesthetic experience. And so the question naturally arises: Can wine be a work of art?
There is an ingrained set of assumptions and attitudes about creativity in the arts that harms our understanding of art and ultimately human existence. That is the idea of the artist as a relatively unconstrained maker, a fashioner ex nihilo who brings something new into being solely through the force of her imagination and capacity for self-expression. We might contrast this with an older view of art perhaps best expressed by this quote attributed to Michelangelo:
“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”
On the view expressed by Michelangelo, an artist is like a skillful craftsperson who attends to the inherent qualities of a piece of raw material, it's shape, grain, texture or color, and then decides what she can do with it. Art is too varied and complex to wholly fit either description, both of which are drawn too starkly, but I want to make the case that Michelangelo's view has more to recommend it than first meets the eye.
Aesthetic appreciation is often described in terms of adopting an aesthetic attitude, a state of mind in which one attends sympathetically and with focused attention to the aesthetic features of objects. Part of that aesthetic attitude is a willingness to be receptive to what is in the work, to refrain from imposing preconceptions on it, to let the work speak for itself. The viewer or listener must open herself up to being moved by the work and to discover all there is to be discovered in it. As important as this attitude of openness and receptivity is to appreciating art, it would be exceedingly odd if this aesthetic attitude was not also part of the process of creating the work. But if we take this receptive attitude seriously it shows the limitations of our assumptions about artists as ultimate masters.
Philosophical definitions of art are not only controversial but tend to be unhelpful in understanding the nature of art. While trying to accommodate new, sometimes radically unfamiliar, developments in the art world, philosophical definitions typically do not explain why art is something about which we care, arguably something a definition should do. Institutional theories that treat art as any work intended to be displayed for the art world, or historical theories that view art as having some intended relationship to prior artworks, leave out any reference to why art is worth making and appreciating.
Aesthetic theories get closer to bringing the value of art into the picture. They privilege an artist's intention to imbue objects with aesthetic character, which when successful produces aesthetic pleasure, surely a primary reason for valuing art. But embodying an intention to produce aesthetic pleasure is not sufficient for something to be an artwork. An attractive, mass produced set of dishes or a potted plant might be intended to have aesthetic properties but are not works of art. Furthermore, the appeal of some works of art such as the ready-mades (e.g. Duchamp's shovel) is not primarily aesthetic at all. Clearly aesthetic pleasure is an important goal of art and one reason why we value it. But considering other reasons to value art might get us closer to a definition that clarifies art's nature.
It seems to me that in addition to art's ability to produce aesthetic pleasure we value works of art because they are accomplishments. We admire and appreciate the skill, effort, depth of insight and conceptual dexterity required to produce art. But more importantly we appreciate works of art because they exemplify creativity. Above all, works of art are works of imagination that constitute a departure from the everyday and the mundane. They surprise us and move us because of their unfamiliarity. I would argue that creativity constitutes the distinctive kind of accomplishment that is a work of art. Thus, it is puzzling that most philosophical definitions of art do not include creativity among their conditions.
However, traditional Western aesthetics apparently demurs on this point since it enshrines complexity as a fundamental aesthetic value. Works of art are considered great if they repay our continued attention. Each new contact with them reveals something new, and this information density and the way it is organized to reveal new dimensions is what brings aesthetic pleasure. Achieving unity in variety is the sine qua non of aesthetic value according to most accounts of our aesthetic tradition. Unity, balance, and clarity are valuable only if they are achieved by organizing complex phenomena. Novelty and the availability of multiple interpretations in part define the kind of interest we take in aesthetic objects. Monroe Beardsley in his influential work Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (1958, 1981) went so far as to argue that complexity along with unity and intensity provide logically necessary (and perhaps sufficient) conditions of aesthetic value.
It's worth noting that in my own small corner of the world of aesthetics, wine-tasting, complexity is admired and simplicity a sign of inferior quality. Legendary and high scoring wines all exhibit complex flavor profiles and extensive evolution on the palate. Simple wines might be enjoyable for dinner but seldom induce rapture.
Since complexity and simplicity at least superficially appear to be contradictory criteria it would seem that simplicity has no role to play in Beardsley's attempt to codify aesthetics. Of course, as I noted above, there are art works that apparently don't exhibit complexity, and today Beardsley is regarded as over-reaching if he intended his criteria to be logically necessary or sufficient. Such definitions have fallen out of favor in most philosophical circles to be replaced by generalizations that hold only for the most part. Yet, complexity, unity, and intensity are useful reference points for evaluating works of art despite the exceptions.
“Ordinary men commonly condemn what is beyond them.” —François de La Rochefoucauld, Maxims
For the American reader Dan Fox is an ideal guide to the murky space where class overlaps with taste. His position in the art world—he is a co-editor of the renowned contemporary art magazine frieze—has furnished him with ringside seats to some of the “nastiest brawls over pretentiousness.” Moreover, he is British. The class education the English receive as a matter of their cultural heritage enables them to view the matter more clearly than their American counterparts, whose understanding of class has been systematically retarded by taboo, ideology, and denialism, resulting in a deeply classed society that has no idea how to talk about this aspect of itself.
Class is not “just a question of money and how you spend it,” Fox helpfully reminds us in his book-length essay Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Coffee House Press, 2016). It's also “about how your identity is constructed in relationship to the world around you.” When we divide classes solely on the basis of wealth—into upper, middle, and lower—as we tend to do in America, it becomes easy to forget that the division is not only arbitrary, but also a gross simplification. In fact, the more generally we talk about class, the easier we fall into confusion. The so-called upper, middle, and lower classes are by no means unified groups, whose members view themselves as bound by the same interests. Every member of the “upper class,” for example, may be considered an elite, but this elite group is comprised of a number of class segments, whose members may in turn be ranked on the basis of their access to various kinds of capital (financial, educational, social, cultural, geographical, symbolic, etc.) whose relative importance is in a permanent state of flux.
For much of the 20th Century, the U.S. was a culinary backwater. Outside some immigrant enclaves where old world traditions were preserved, Americans thought of food as nutrition and fuel. Food was to be cheap, nutritious (according to the standards of the day) and above all convenient; the pleasures of food if attended to at all were a minor domestic treat unworthy of much public discussion.
How times have changed! Today, celebrity chefs strut across the stage like rock stars, a whole TV network is devoted to explaining the intricacies of fermentation or how to butcher a hog, countless blogs recount last night's meal in excruciating detail, and competitions for culinary capo make the evening news. We talk endlessly about the pleasures of food, conversations that are supported by specialty food shops, artisan producers, and aisles of fresh, organic produce in the supermarket. Restaurants, even small neighborhood establishments, feature chefs who cook with creativity and panache.
Why this sudden interest in food? As I argue in American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution, our current interest in food is a search for authenticity, face-to-face contact, local control, and personal creativity amidst a world that is increasingly standardized, bureaucratic, digitized, and impersonal. In contemporary life, the public world of work, with its incessant demands for efficiency and profit, has colonized our private lives. The pressures of a competitive, unstable labor market, the so-called “gig” economy, along with intrusive communications technology make it increasingly difficult to escape a work world governed by the value of efficiency. This relentless acceleration of demands compresses our sense of time so we feel like there is never enough of it. Standardization destroys the uniqueness of localities and our social lives are spread across the globe in superficial networks of “contacts” where we interact with brands instead of whole persons. The idea that something besides production and consumption should occupy our attention, such as a sense of community or self-examination, seems quaint and inefficient—a waste of time. Thus, we lose touch with ourselves while internalizing the self-as-commodity theme and hiving off all aspects of our lives that might harm our “brand”—a homogenized, marketable self. Even our vaunted and precious capacity to choose is endangered, for we no longer choose based on a sensibility shaped by our unique experiences; instead our sensibilities are constructed by corporate choice architects, informed by their surveys and datamining that shepherd our decisions.
One of the main hurdles confronting the view that fine cuisine is a fine art is to say what fine cuisine is about. Paintings refer to something beyond the painting and thus a painting can have meaning and can be interpreted. What do dishes refer to? Are they just flavor combinations that refer to nothing beyond the meal or do the flavors have meaning that can be decoded and elucidated, as a reader might grasp the symbols in a poem? Here is a quote from essayist and literary critic William Deresiewic articulating the standard puzzlement often expressed when confronted by this question of the meaning of food:
But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion. An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one. Meals can evoke emotions, but only very roughly and generally, and only within a very limited range — comfort, delight, perhaps nostalgia, but not anger, say, or sorrow, or a thousand other things. Food is highly developed as a system of sensations, extremely crude as a system of symbols. Proust on the madeleine is art; the madeleine itself is not art. A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.
This dismissive argument from Deresiewic receives support from many philosophers throughout history writing on the arts. Even Carolyn Korsmeyer, the philosopher most responsible for putting food on the philosophical map, while granting that food is worthy of serious aesthetic attention, has reservations about food being a fine art. “Ought we now to take the next step and conclude that foods also qualify as works of art in the full sense of the term? That they represent in their own medium the same sorts of objects as paintings, sculptures, poems, and symphonies? I do not believe we should.” (Korsmeyer, Making Sense of Taste, 124)
Korsmeyer argues that food acquires meaning only because of its context, the ceremonies and rituals that surround the serving of food. Food, of course, is richly symbolic. The apple in Eve's hand represents the fall of humanity. The apple in Mom's apple pie represents her loving solicitude. For the Genoan, pesto is the taste of home; for coastal New Englanders it’s a clambake. Chicken soup is a symbol of healing; the Thanksgiving turkey a symbol of gratitude, abundance, and the gathering of family. There is plenty of meaning here to keep the semioticians busy.
In a desultory speculative history, an affliction caused by the febrile May heat here in Bombay, I imagined a current day encounter between two old scheming radicals who spent their entire lifetimes up to no good—from global-trotting revolutionary activity to cloistered tomfoolery. I saw MN Roy, a founder of the Communist Party of India and the Mexican Communist Party slowly sipping tequila out of a slender glass with Conlon Nancarrow, a music composer of extraordinary conceptual depth and at one time, an American communist. Apart from a shared ideological space, these two remarkable men also shared a love for Mexico City—while Roy spent two intellectually formative, even revelatory, years in the sprawling city from 1917 to 1919, Nancarrow left America in protest twenty years later in 1940. He subsequently became a Mexican citizen and spent the rest of his life there. In my heat-induced visions, I saw the two eating fresh papaya (Nancarrow reportedly was very fond of them) and shooting the breeze. Perhaps they spoke of British spies, Bolsheviks, Hegelian dialectics, and radical humanism; my delirium did not reveal the nature of the conversation. I am more inclined to attribute things of a mundane nature to the encounter—the pleasing weather, Louis Armstrong, and seasonal fruits. It could well be that they were planning a night out at MN Roy's former house No 186, now a well-known ‘clandestine', ‘hip' night club in Mexico City (thanks to 3QD editor Robin Varghese for this gem), the irony of which is fecund with wild discursive possibilities.
When we eat, if we pay attention at all, we focus on the pleasures of flavor and texture. But some meals have a larger significance that provokes memory and imagination. So it is with comfort food–the filling, uncomplicated, soft, and digestible comestibles that haunt our consciousness with thoughts of security, calm, nourishment, and being cared for, especially when triggered by memories of the flavors of home.
Apple pie, ice cream, chocolate cake, macaroni and cheese, chicken soup-their smell and taste can unfetter a flood of memories because our brains are wired to associate good feelings with specific flavors and aromas, especially when the flavors are fat, salt and sugar. In the face of such powerful stimuli, we succumb helplessly to the endorphin cascade. The foods of home have such a grip on us that we go to a great deal of trouble to bring our food with us when we travel. The spread of various foodstuffs throughout the world was made possible by armies, both military and migrant, determined to carry the taste of home with them. A visit to any ethnic market in a major city reveals the importance of these taste memories to our sense of well-being.
Home cooking has this significance because meals are as much about relationships as they are about food. Unlike other animals, we do not eat when food is available. We dine at particular times, in particular ways, and with particular table mates. Families interact around the kitchen table and are defined by the small daily rituals of gathering, preparing, and consuming food. Meals bring families together physically and emotionally and the tastes and smells become associated with the achievement of social solace and acceptance. “Homeyness”, for want of a more elegant word, may be the most powerful and persistent meaning that attaches to food. Thus, the simplistic claim that food lacks meaning is obviously false. Mom's apple pie is as meaningful as anything in life for some of us.
But does comfort food have the kind of meaning that works of art have?
In many traditional wine regions of the world wine, like food, has been a marker of identity. Wine, when properly made, expresses the character of the soil and climate in which grapes are grown, and the sensibilities of the people who make and consume it. Thus, it is a form of cultural expression that sets one culture or region off from another, drawing a contrast with the rest of the world and inducing a sense of local uniqueness and particularity. As a bulwark against the homogenization of wine produced by global corporations for a world market, the authenticity of a wine's expression thus becomes one criterion by which wine quality is assessed. Wine that does not taste of its origins is branded inauthentic.
But just as creative chefs are confronted with the problem of being innovative while maintaining links to traditions, winemakers are faced with a similar dilemma. Wine lovers are nothing if not diviners of secrets. We strain to find the hidden layer of spice that emerges only after an hour of decanting, alertly attend to the ephemeral floral notes from esters so volatile that a few seconds exposure to air whisks them away forever, and obsess over the hint of tobacco that begins to develop only after 10 years in the cellar. If a wine is to qualify as a work of art, it must repay such devoted attention, revealing new dimensions with repeated tastings, especially as it develops with age. It should be an expression of the vision of the winemaker or the terroir of the region in which the grapes were grown, and like great art, a great wine should be a bit of an enigma, yielding pleasure and understanding while leaving the impression that there is something more here to be grasped. But most importantly, a vinous work of art must be unique. Just as Van Gogh's rendering of Arles is great because no predecessor had been able to capture with paint what Van Gogh saw in an ordinary Cyprus tree, a work of vinous art will uncover new dimensions in flavor. But that seems to contradict the demand that wine reflect the traditional flavor profile characteristic of the region from which it comes. How does a winemaker achieve originality while remaining wedded to tradition?
In the humdrum course of daily life, we tend to ignore most of the objects we encounter. We focus only on what will break down or threaten us if we aren’t paying attention and neglect anything that is in its proper place benignly performing its function. Such inattention is a shame but inevitable. We wouldn't survive for long if we maintained a child's fascina tion with what can be taken for granted.
One of the functions of art is to resist that inattention and sustain, if only at very special moments, a fragile fascination with the commonplace. The history of art is full of examples of works that illuminate the ordinary: The Rembrandt portrait that reveals a little-known character of its subject; or beams of light from an undisclosed source in a Caravaggio that reveals God's presence in an everyday scene. But it is especially true of modern art. The still-lifes of Cezanne, the ready-mades of Duchamp, the bricolage of postmodernism, all exemplify one prevalent theme of the art of the past 150 years—the commonplace is extraordinary.
Van Gogh was especially gifted at wresting revelation from the commonplace. In explaining why he left Paris for Arles in Provence, Van Gogh wrote that he wanted to “paint the South” to help others “see” it. Convinced that previous painters had failed in this task, he painted roughly 328 canvases of the area in a little over two years, a body of work which included 14 canvases of trees in bloom in the fields near Arles, a number of paintings of the Alpilles hills just outside of town, and 12 paintings of wheat fields visible from his window in the asylum, to which he consigned himself after cutting off his ear.
Trees in bloom, distant hills, wheat fields? These are commonplace objects we might superficially admire while on a leisurely walk, but they typically escape our focused attention. Yet, Van Gogh was convinced there is something to see in these objects, which our ordinary modes of perception cannot easily discern and which require an artist of his stature to make visible. (I hope cutting off one's ear is not a requirement for such an ability to see.)
What does Van Gogh see in the fields and hills near Arles that others miss?