Let Art Restore Your Faith In Humanity
Art captures universal truths that remind us we are all in the same human predicament
I have a postcard of this image tacked to my study wall. ‘Pennsylvania coal town’ by Edward Hopper. Whenever I stop my work and look up at this painting, I can’t help but feel that Hopper painted something I recognize. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I recognize it anyway. He got it right, which is a rather vague way of saying that he found something which is essentially true about being alive.
Whatever this truth is, it has nothing especially to do with coal mining in Pennsylvania, not for me at least. That’s not the world I live in. It does have something to do with a man raking his front lawn and the sun beginning to set, and with the way he pauses for a second, looking out to the distance. It is a truth captured in the particular spacing between the two houses, whose fronts are in shadow and whose sides are bathed in the yellow light of late afternoon.
It is an instant of human behavior we must all identify with, in ourselves and in others too. Who has not paused once in a while like this, and in the moment apprehended something about their lives that words cannot quite express? When a new thought ignites, a soft flame of understanding lights the way ahead. It is about looking back or looking forward. Or maybe facing up to a difficult choice that has to be made some day soon. You see this dilemma perfectly his paintings, yet you cannot say what it is exactly.
The painting also acts as a metaphor: A lone figure stares into the middle-distance at something that we, as viewers, are not party to. What this man is gazing at is only known to him. We share the same world as him (in Hopper’s version, a world of subways, apartment buildings and late-night diners) yet for a moment this individual is alone in his, occupying that state of solipsism that we all must suspect, from time to time, is the real nature of our existence.
How can a painting do that? How does it get to that place? In the case of Hopper, much of his feeling comes through his choice of atmospheric effects: so many of his paintings take place at dusk, or just before or just after it. That’s not to say there’s anything predictable about an Edward Hopper painting. Only that he found a dependable way to reach a place of meaning.
At the very crux of this painting is an absence: the light fading, the man pausing, the quietude of the late afternoon. This is the wonder of an artwork like this. It operates in a silence that penetrates as if it were a hundred decibels loud.
Art has a peculiar way of capturing these rare universal truths. The expression is not one of platitudes or clichés (although art is not exempt from such things) but of describing an experience that others can relate to. Art reminds us we are all — in these minds and bodies — in the same perplexing and amazing predicament.
It is easy to get lost inside an art gallery. Especially the grand, expansive sort, the sort that occupy room after room of old paintings in ornate gold frames — ‘masterpieces’ we are told — whose presence, you feel, is supposed to command reverence and admiration, even when their meanings can seem antiquated, obscure and occasionally absurd. To wonder through these rooms can be a bit like exploring the stately quarters of a grand mansion, the old home of some elite family whose history and lineage, you suspect, perpetuates an out of date entitlement. Above all, the paintings and sculptures on display carry an air of superiority that some people can find off putting.
But look a little closer and you’ll see worlds that you recognize. Landscapes with cloud and sunlight, the same cloud and sunlight that you know from your own back gardens or local park. The way a patch of light dilates over fields as it breaks through the cloud.
These are the elements that echo in the memory, forgotten scenes that spring up with the stir of diverse passions and spirits. Those times when we first learnt and felt and unfolded, senses awake. Artists capture these moments and prove that we all share in a common experience.
On my study wall, I have pinned several other postcards of Edward Hopper paintings. One of them is a work called ‘Sunlight on Brownstones’, and I’ve positioned this on the wall so it sits directly opposite the ‘Pennsylvania coal town’ painting.
Now the paintings face each other. To my mind, it’s as if the figures in each painting are staring across the void to towards one another. In this way, it seems to fill in the absence that each work contains. And so the question “What are they looking at?” is answered in the same breathe. In art, we are always looking at each other.