Art inSight: Understanding Art and Why It Matters by Fanchon Silberstein, Intellect: University of Chicago Press, 2020, 196 pages. Reviewed by Craig Storti.
Granted: This sounds like a book about art. So what’s it doing in the SIETAR newsletter? The answer is contained in the title and especially in the subtitle. The title can be read two ways: art in sight (something to do with looking at art) and art insight (something about what art can teach). And the subtitle expands on this dual purpose: this book will help you understand art, but it will also show you how understanding art matters, how it can change you for the better. And therein lies the intercultural angle, for it is Fanchon’s central thesis that if you actively engage with art—as opposed to passively observing it—you will learn about the mind and world of the artist and as a result have insights into your own mind and your own world. And if those worlds are very different—think artists from cultures and backgrounds other than your own—then engaging with art is inherently intercultural. But it is more than that: entering the world of the Other, in this case through art, opens you up to understanding difference and, with a little luck, to accepting or at least tolerating difference. And that’s why art matters
In the book Fanchon quotes Picasso to the effect that a painting is not finished until the viewer arrives. This is that idea again that art is an exchange—Fanchon calls it a dialogue—between two people, two worldviews. It doesn't have to be an exchange, of course; it’s not as if there’s something wrong with just observing and reacting, with being pleased by and liking what you see or being put off and not liking it. But if you are so inclined and especially if you know how, you can turn that mere viewing, mere looking, into something much more, a learning experience—an insight—rather than just a moment of pleasure or displeasure.
And that is Fanchon’s cause: to teach us how to move beyond observing art to engaging with it and experiencing the many benefits of so doing. Simply stated, Fanchon says you have to ask questions of art. She says that meeting strange art is like meeting a stranger, and just as asking questions of, developing a relationship with, and ultimately understanding a stranger will enrich your life, asking questions of art can provide the same kind of enrichment. “This book is about how to talk to art and listen to yourself. It invites you to find the life in seemingly inert objects—to give art…the capacity to look back, to answer.” But it’s not just about asking, however; you have to listen to the answers, and many times revise your thinking based on what you hear (or, more aptly, see). The entire process “is a demanding, perpetual act, but I think in order to live peacefully with differences, it’s the best we have—to look, ask, revise, correct—and ask the next question.” If you think all this is so much malarkey and not much fun besides, read pages 77-82 wherein a Persian miniature from 1520 and a 1971 American painting called Diner interrogate each other. You will be touched and humbled.
What do you mean by asking questions of art? What kind of questions? Take the Persian miniature from 1520:
What’s going on here? There are people in a garden.
What are they doing? They appear to be talking.
Why are they in a garden?
Does the garden represent something? It represents paradise
Is it mostly men? Mostly women? Mixed? Is that significant?
Does the big tree represent something?
Why is there a second, smaller tree?
How to engage with art, then, is the central thesis of this book, but it’s full of provocative, related ideas about art—the meaning of perspective, the role of context, the nature of the observer—as well as many wonderful quotations, and lovely reproductions (the book is beautifully produced). Fanchon’s writing is immediately accessible, like she’s talking to you; this is not an art lecture but a conversation with one very engaging, knowledgeable lady.
The above synopsis notwithstanding, Art inSight is not a diatribe or a stealth self-help book with pretty pictures to make the sermon go down better (although the pictures are pretty). It is earnest—Fanchon wants to bring people together in this age of polarities—but it’s not preachy, heavy-handed, or a polemic.
OK: Maybe it is a bit of a polemic, but you’ll enjoy your time with this woman so much, learn so much about art, and find Fanchon’s enthusiasm so infectious, you’ll be eagerly awaiting her next polemic.
Full disclosure: I have the honor of being a long-time friend of Fanchon’s; it’s why I could not bring myself to call her Silberstein in this review (she’s not a Marine recruit, for heaven’s sake). I suppose I should have invited someone more objective to review this book, but to be honest I didn’t want anyone messing with my friend.