The value of seeing: why everyone should make art

academic advice art High School

The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” (John Berger, Ways of Seeing)

Visual discernment is a critical foundation of artistic practice, and often one of the first skills taught at a beginner art course. Reacting to a still life, students outline and shade what sits before them—a realist composition determined by 1:1 replication. 

After graduating from realism, students are then asked to identify and create “moments” in their own compositions (areas of the artwork that are visually intriguing). Now, what one is looking for is not immediately recognizable. This is where art begins to gain its metaphysical features. An ephemeral quality constituting an unseeable “value.” 

Let’s pause, and ruminate on the importance of seeing.  Not just what is immediately perceptible; but what lies beneath the surface. In other words, the social and temporal aspects that contribute to its making. Every stroke upon every layer is a visual mark of this process. While the artist begins their practice by recreating what they perceive in reality, ultimately, the artist is building a language beyond aesthetics. One that often cannot be fully translated into words. 

Dr. Jill Bennett regards art as a conductor of feelings—where what is delivered and retained from a piece is regarded as transitive, rather than communicative. This is the cultural significance of art, an awareness to it and to each other, a new found “empathic vision” [1].

I used to journal a lot as a kid (and occasionally still do). But I found art-making to better sublimate any sort of internal conflict I was having. Additionally, any critical thinking skills that I gained from art analysis was seeping into the other disciplines I was studying at that time. With every research project, I was deviating from reductive data analysis, and becoming more inquisitive and imaginative about the data I was producing. Essentially, whenever I approached evidence like a painting, I found myself with a more nuanced interpretation of what I was analyzing. Altogether, being a more empathic viewer made me a better researcher. 

There is so much more I can say about the value of developing an art practice, but I will conclude with an exercise that might jumpstart the process.

Buy a small notebook, observe, and sketch. This can be anyone or anything. Start small. As I initially stated, to see and respect the unseeable, an artist must first practice the act of looking. If you have space in your schedule, take a beginner art class one semester. And if you don’t have room, visit museums, join live figure drawing sessions, or just experiment on your own. Don’t feel intimidated if you’re a beginner! This is not about the final product, but developing a process you can ubiquitously apply to other dimensions of your life and research.

[1] Bennett, Jill. Empathic vision: affect, trauma, and contemporary art. United States: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Valerie is an artist and scientist who holds a degree in Molecular Cellular Developmental Biology, as well as a BA in Art with a concentration in Painting from Yale University. She also holds an MA in Cultural Studies and Critical Theory from the Rhode Island School of Design.

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