Siri Hustvedt on looking at art & what it means to be human

Work’s out, we are almost (inevitably) constantly starring at our devices working and in a rush to meet the next deadline. Sometimes we just need to read a book (feel the paper pages between our fingers!) and charge up our minds with fresh ideas, new thoughts, and different perspectives. My book list is varied and spans genres as I am a big believer in continuous learning through reading. And this concerns different areas in life, but I am especially interested in art and culture. Besides visiting exhibitions and galleries, reading about art is a good way to learn new ways to approach and make sense of various works of art. Siri Hustvedt‘s Living, Thinking, Looking (2012) offers insights into – among other things – what it means to meet art and to have a conversation about art. In this essay collection, Siri Hustvedt addresses in an engaging way of writing a number of questions concerning our perception and experience with the visual arts.

One essay, in particular, attracted my attention as it deviates from the rather rational approaches art historians tend to apply when discussing artworks. In this essay, she explores how we look at Francisco de Goya’s work and what feelings and memories such an encounter provoke.

Art historians often step around feeling, presumably because it is too ambiguous and subjective to be dealt with in a dignified manner, but consciousness without feeling is a pathological state that impairs normal functioning and intellectual judgment.

Siri Hustvedt (2012)

Understanding that we comprehend art not only through our senses but through our feelings as well can help us in becoming more aware of our own position towards a work, as Siri Hustvedt’s example of Goya’s The Disasters of War demonstrates. Why do we react and feel a certain way? These questions force us to reflect upon the relevance of an artwork which is different than looking at art and seeing its meaning for and in the past. Goya’s work provokes many reactions: we are shocked, disgusted, fascinated, and intrigued almost the same time. Thus, by sharing her experiences and knowledge, Siri Hustvedt offers an incentive to explore and deepen our understanding of the basic question: Why is art relevant? In the case of Goya’s The Disasters of War, it seems that violence, madness, and physical suffering are not characteristic of any particular age, but represent universal human experiences.

Thus, Siri Hustvedt invites us to reflect on the question of what it means to be human. Human beings are the only animals who make art and it allows us to create an essential space of freedom:

When we come to a work of art, we are not only witness to the results of another person’s intentional play in his or her fictive space, we are free to play ourselves, to muse and dream and question and theorize.

Siri Hustvedt (2012)


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