Let the silence take over: On words, inner compass, and patience

Looking at Art


Il faut se méfier des mots (Beware of words), Ben, 1993. Belleville, Paris, France. Photo: Astrid Dick

To make a painting is not easy. To look at a painting is not an easy matter either, as it requires the viewer’s disposition and willingness to engage with it beyond words and labeling. Our brains like to pin things down, using minimum resources to move on to the next task as quickly as possible. They latch on to words. Yet the moment words enter our minds, we’re not really looking anymore.

Before turning fully to my painting practice, I was an academic and spent many years doing scientific research and writing papers for eventual publication in peer-reviewed journals. When I quit my job as a professor of economics to dedicate entirely to art, I was surprised to find that there seems to be a considerable reliance on verbal language in the visual arts and on the sort of academic jargon I was exposed to in my previous professional life. This I found the more surprising as it applies not only to art writers and thinkers, whose task is to put thoughts into words for art viewers, but especially artists themselves – this being particularly the case in France where I have been living for the last decade and a half. 

There is nothing wrong with words and logic, but it is essential to highlight the imbalance in our society relative to our other less intellectual, more sensorial faculties. Like Hamlet, “words, words, words!” protests Alexander in the barren windy landscape of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, a complaint fitting to an artist whose films “are like looking at the stars,” [1] conjuring the possibility of the visual to communicate in the most significant and universal of ways. The Greeks, too, understood the tricks of language and recognized the unconscious well before Freud in their adoration of the Unknown God. Towards the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein – remarkably the adored philosopher of the rationalists and the polymath of language – assigns art to the realm of the “unsayable.” Upon seeing a work of art, it is perhaps easier to come up with a few words than to open up to the work’s uncertain and timeless experience, especially in a world where time is perceived as a limited resource like never before.

A scene from “The Sacrifice” (1986) by Andrei Tarkovsky.

“To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world,” asserts Susan Sontag.[2] If one has ever tried to explain one’s love to a loved one, it is not hard to see her point, or as Johan tells his wife Marianne in Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage: “Let’s stop talking about our love before it evaporates.” [3] Our most potent, most profound feelings are rooted in worlds of meaning of their own, beyond words and logic. A poem, though using words, enlarges our experience by embodying these feelings as opposed to fixing them. In this sense, art criticism can be potentially enriching, but I have found it particularly helpful when it is less based on theories and academic rigor than on personal experience. I particularly enjoy art writing that is quite idiosyncratic in the sense of emphasizing the author’s subjective experience and being transparent about it. It is, perhaps paradoxically, such a specific stance that, to me, opens up doors to the viewer as well as additional layers of meaning. One example in extremis would be Martin Heidegger’s description of a painting of shoes by Vincent Van Gogh.[4] While he uses it as an argument to his philosophical definition of truth in art, the text in itself is entirely subjective and could not have more of a lyrical élan, making a great counterpoint to his otherwise logical analysis.   


Vincent Van Gogh, oil on canvas, 38.1 cm x 45.3 cm, 1886. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Art demands our full perceptive capability. A painting, for instance, is for the eyes, but it also exudes energy. As viewers, it is up to us to do the hard work of clearing and recognition, assessing our disposition and identifying our a priori and our biases. If we look at how a painting is made, it is the result of a game – the best game possible, as Frank Auerbach says – between the painter and material resistance, using color, texture, form, line, applied on some form of support. Yet none of these constructs, together and in themselves, account for the painting. It is the imbued idiosyncratic breath of the personal, the entire set of faculties to feel, think, and sense, of the painter, that gives substance and thus meaning to the work of art.

Certainly, it takes time and a solid will to enhance our lucidity and focus, to hear our internal rhythm, like developing an inner compass. It requires us to be patient, a word derived from the Latin patiens, meaning, fittingly, to endure. The potential impact a work of art may have on our outlook on life can be enormous, especially as it is decanted through life experience and circumstances – a painting can be seen all at once, but its meaning may continue to develop. Treasures, like love, take time to unveil themselves and always keep a part of mystery. If lucky, it might take the viewer to a place out of time altogether.

Art is an invitation to a process, and that is what makes it exciting. Before us viewers is the opportunity to become an active part of the artwork, and in doing so, deliver a new work of our own. It is a process that requires a step inward into our own and a trusting step outward into the vast experiential possibilities afforded by the work of art. A work of art may be a travel guide, a reliable helm in the tempests of life, a counselor in the deepening of our existence in the world. 

As a painter, I spend a lot of my time looking at paintings, and one of my favorite things about them is how they change with the light and the surroundings and my own state of mind. I am lucky to own a few paintings that I either received as gifts or exchanges, or was able to acquire from painters I admire and love. Living with a work of art not only enriches my daily life but also adds density to the relationship I have with it. Indeed, the experience of looking at art in a gallery or even a museum is sometimes far removed from this intimacy, yet these settings offer other interesting dimensions.  Museums always feel special to me, a kind of pilgrimage, a place stolen from time full of precious surprises. Although sometimes I find myself jumping too quickly to read the curator’s note on the side, and often wish there was a chair.  

Originally from Buenos Aires, Astrid Dick is a painter based in Paris, France. She received a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2002 and was an academic until 2009 when she turned fully to her painting practice after a long life as an art double-agent. The author would like to thank Paul D’Agostino for his insightful comments.

 [1] Arseny Tarkovsky was a Russian poet and Andrei Tarkovsky’s father. 

[2] Sontag, Susan. “Against interpretation,” 1966 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux eds.).

[3] Cited from personal recollection.

[4] In Martin Heidegger’s 1935 conference published under the title “The origin of the work of art” (Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes) 1935.