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How Art Touches Us

A disclaimer is in order for this article. It represents my personal opinions on the subject and makes no pretense of scientific validity. However, I think I'm onto something. You be the judge.

"I don't know much about Art, but I know what I like." This is a remark that anyone who takes art seriously has heard on many occasions. The phrase is often used by someone who anticipates that his or her taste will be criticized by someone with an air of authority, but, in fact, it probably is the best starting point for most collectors.

Anyone who fancies himself or herself to be an artist will probably have the experience of seeing the mental processes a potential buyer goes through before actually buying a piece of art. It is that, "I love it! I have to have it" moment that set the tone for a purchase of art. A piece may strike a chord with someone and the bemused artist may think that the piece is one that was more of a novelty than a "best" piece. Yet, the visceral reaction of the putative buyer belies the artist's personal evaluation, which may be based more on the challenge or difficulty the piece represented for the artist than on the criterion the art buyer is using.


You may have noticed that I used two musical terms in this short introduction: "tone" and "strike a chord." An experience I had in grade school makes me think that what happens is very akin to a musical experience.

When I was in 5th grade, my teacher (a really smart and caring Sister of Charity) brought someone into our classroom who demonstrated a tuning fork. The fork was struck. It gave out a distinctive tone, and a moment later, the same tone sang out from some woodwork in the classroom. Talk about Magic! I, for one, was astonished and deeply intrigued by that effect. The visitor explained that the tone from the woodwork was the result of a sympathetic vibration that occurred when the tuning fork's tone matched the wave length in the woodwork.

If you Google "sympathetic vibration definition" you will find the following: "a vibration produced in one body by the vibrations of exactly the same period in a neighboring body." This describes the sympathetic vibration phenomenon, and this phenomenon (using a tuning fork) has been exploited in many disciplines including the medical field.

Even without a tuning fork, the property that causes the sympathetic vibration will occur when two bodies are on the same "wave length." Anyone who has ever tuned a guitar by using the harmonics produced when two strings are tuned perfectly to sound the same note is using the principle of the sympathetic vibrations.

Over the years since my childhood experience, I have formed the opinion that one of the explanations for individual musical taste is that, to some degree, people are tuned to different wave lengths. The music that appeals to us, viscerally, is striking a sympathetic chord in our bodies, depending on the wave length to which we are tuned. When we hear music that pleases us so much that we feel as if we are bathing in it, I imagine all the little sound receptors basking in the harmonics.

So how does this relate to the way in which Art touches us? I believe that a similar phenomenon occurs when we encounter visual sights that create a harmonic with our body's visual wave length. Of course we have no visual tuning fork, but I believe that visual harmonics exist. I based this on a life-time of experiencing sights and sounds that appeal so viscerally that their effects are as physical as they are cerebral.

For some artists, this visceral appeal is created by manipulating the visual wave lengths that make up light. Many an artist will confess that their real obsession is in capturing some phenomenon related to light. I won't go into a long explanation, although most people probably know that the ideal studio for someone who paints is one with a "North light." That light, while often described as cold, is believed to be the light that permits the most accurate results for someone who wants to achieve a harmonic color palette and an accurate perception of the “true” colors and hues with which the artist is working.


For some artists, chasing the light [reproducing, or manipulating, light effects] in their paintings is the work of a life-time.

The phenomenon of light is even embedded in our language [and not merely English]. Consider the word, "delight." Literally, this takes "de," meaning "of," and grafts it to light. It describes a peculiar joy a human will experience, and we use it, not merely for sights that move us, but also for experiences that so enervate us that the joy lights us up.

So, this brings us to the conclusion of my thesis.

Appreciating art come from more than the visual wave lengths found in light. More broadly, the initial appeal of visual art arises when a piece of visual art sets up a sympathetic vibration with our individual, set at birth, visual wave length. Of course, these things add to our appreciation.

Certain themes, and cultural influences may enhance our delight. Tastes may focus or expand with maturity. The result of broad exposure to different types of art may also broaden the sorts of art that appeal to us. However, whatever else enhances the experience, ultimately it is that sense of delight, that moment when a piece of visual art communicates an experience that wraps around us, that accounts for some of the most profound moments of enjoyment any of us can ever experience. That is the, “I love it!” moment. That is the way art truly touches us.

This is a reprint of an article I wrote when I was exhibiting at the Cove Gallery in Laguna Beach, California. I hope it strikes a chord with you, readers. Your feedback would be greatly appreciated.

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