H.R. Rookmaaker - What is Visual Art?
What is visual art?
by H.R. Rookmaaker
People sure can ask difficult questions. Visual art is visual art, is it not,
and posing the question, ‘What is visual art?’ seems a bit like asking
when you already know the answer. Let us be honest, everybody knows
what visual art is – painting and sculpture – and everybody can
distinguish between better art and worse art, the great and the banal.
Imagine that this was not the case, that visual art could only be
understood by experts and that we were able to distinguish a painting
from let’s say a poem only after we had read an extensive treatise about
it. However, this does not imply that criticizing art is obvious and easy. It
certainly requires some experience – those who make no effort in this
respect cannot expect their criticism will always be right.
Art is for everybody, and in principle everybody can understand it; it
is definitely not for artists or experts only. As with politics, so with art too
there are people who are engaged in it, people who comment on it, and
people who, though they are not directly involved, can definitely
develop their own insight into this field.
I deliberately did not include ‘judge it’, for the final judgment about
the acts of the great men and women of this world has not been placed
in our hands. That God has reserved for himself. So let us postpone the
discussion of what judgment means and first ask ourselves what exactly
visual art is.
For convenience’s sake we will limit ourselves to the art of painting,
of which we can say in the first place that the artist wants to tell us
something through colours and lines. It is more or less as with poetry, in
which through the medium of language something gets communicated
in a certain way. Perhaps you will object that language and colour are not
directly comparable. I agree, it is indeed more complicated. In our view
it is like this: language uses written or spoken words; spoken language
uses sounds which are organized in a certain manner and have a
particular meaning. In paintings, colours, spatial forms, paint etc.461 are
used in a similar manner, all put on a flat surface in a controlled and
In language organized sounds have meaning; in paintings colours,
etc., in a similar way have meaning. Thus in paintings we also have a kind
of language, which we could call ‘pictorial’ language, a language that
expresses something by means of ‘pictures’ or images (which could be
compared to the words in a spoken language). However, we prefer to use
another term for this type of ‘pictorial’ language, namely the iconic
(from icon, meaning ‘image’).
In the meantime we have to realize that we also find language
outside of literary prose or poetry; they are actually exceptional
instances of the use of language. It is similar with the iconic. We
encounter this particular medium of communication every day, outside
the area of visual art. As an example of an everyday icon, think of a map.
Blue lines mean waterways, red lines mean roads, black lines indicate
railroads, circles or uneven blotches of red show villages and cities,
green indicates forests, hills are brown, etc. Just as in spoken language
an isolated word often does not mean much but only begins to speak to
us, in other words to take on full meaning, in its context, so it is here too.
The structure of the region that is represented on the map becomes
clear only through the combination of the iconic indications mentioned
above. And then it becomes clear that with the iconic we can show things
that we could never express with words (the opposite is obviously just as
true). Other examples of the use of the iconic are: statistical diagrams,
advertising placards, the images that we sometimes find on traffic signs
(a train, a digging man, etc.), technical drawings, diagrams in electrical
engineering, and finally even alphabetic characters.
From the last example it is clear that it is not necessary for the icon
to (visually) resembles that which it represents, although this is usually
the case. In this regard we can compare the icon with onomatopoeia in
language, words like cuckoo, purring, etc. which mimic sounds. From
the given examples it is obvious that this mimicking of sound is rather
relative: the bird sings ‘cuckoo’ quite differently from the way we
pronounce its name. And therefore we do not want to put too much
emphasis on the notion of onomatopoeia to explain the icon, because
the relationship between that which is represented, or rather, iconically
indicated, and the icon itself is not necessarily a relationship of
representation or imitation. Think for example of a drawing of a table:
how minimal is the similarity between the few thin pencil lines on the
flat surface of the paper and the real table, or between the stick figures
in little Johnny’s scrap book and the people they iconically refer to!
To summarize what we have said above, the iconic is nothing more
than a kind of language in which only colours and lines are used to
represent full realities. And just as there are many languages, there are
also many iconic systems. For example, the manner in which space is
represented varies widely. Our Western perspective is but one of the many
possibilities. And, in reality, we certainly do not see space like that. Maybe
you remember what we wrote about photography in this respect.
Painters tell something in an iconic way, depict something of a
particular history, of a landscape or simply a few flowers, of a person or
just of daily life, like poets also do in their own way. Now, we all know that
a poet uses language in a particular way, also because she or he speaks
about things to which we normally do not pay much attention, as in the
following short poem:
Tender and young, like budding spring,
but lighter still, without fruiting bud,
with thin mist between the yellowing leaves
autumn quietly sets in.
Similarly the painter who wants to paint an autumn scene, for example,
does not iconically portray this at random but does it in a particular way,
using the means which are at his or her disposal. Not only do artists
(poets or painters) speak about ordinary, or extraordinary, things to
show the special aspects of them, to give us their view on a particular
subject, but they also do this in an aesthetic manner, namely in such a
way that their work contains beauty. Colours and lines are combined in
a composition so that a beautiful picture emerges, with its own rhythm,
its own harmonious colours, an aesthetically meaningful combination.
Read again what we stated in a previous article on Jan van Goyen’s
landscape art about his almost musical manner of composing. This
example makes clear that the composition is not separated from the
iconic but that, on the contrary, in every really good work of art there
will be a close coherence between these two: the iconic elements will be
positioned in such a way that they serve the aesthetic composition; and
the composition will be structured in such a way that what the artist
wants to say is made clear and accentuated by the aesthetic coherence of
the parts of the painting. With regard to good paintings it is therefore
almost impossible to speak about the composition without
simultaneously saying something about the manner in which the artists
dealt iconically with their subject, i.e. how and to what extent they
succeeded in making their intention clear. Inversely, we will be able to
say little about the iconic without simultaneously saying something
about the aesthetic aspect of a painting.
The aesthetic aspect of a work of art has its own value. Sometimes it
can be used with great emphasis while the subject can be more or
less neglected or be treated as unimportant, yet the work nevertheless
achieves its purpose fully. Think for example of decorative frescos,
of a logo on a book spine, of a vignette, of the many instances in which
visual art is used decoratively only. In a sense most wall decorations fall
in this category!
But the true great work of art, the important painting, offers
something else: there is much more at stake, just as in an important
poem or a significant novel. There a more or less grand vision is given
of a specific subject. In a unique way we are told something about
important or seemingly important matters, but always in such a manner
that it catches our attention. For this reason a work of art can teach us
something. No, I do not here want to defend didactic art that wants to
‘teach’ us something, but I am of the opinion that all art of some calibre
teaches us to see more, broadens our horizon, shows us things of which
we were not aware. Jan van Goyen made us see the particular beauty and
the characteristics of the structure of our great rivers, Paulus Potter (and
many others) depicted the Dutch cattle, van Ostade helped us to better
appreciate the colourful country life, and so on. Especially the painters
of later times – since the fifteenth century – have taught us to see (as a
result of the nature of their art). Did Heda not show us the beauty of a
glass that reflects light, did Kalff not open our eyes to the amazing
reflections of light on silver? The paintings of our [Dutch] seventeenth
century are, each in their own way, ‘iconic songs’ about the beauty of
God’s creation, poems about the joy of this earthly life – very sober and
realistic, and without denying the effects of sin and the fall.
In our time it is different. Now too our artists want to show us our own
world and our own times. But because of apostasy, joy has disappeared; it
has been replaced by a lot of bitterness, hatred, and inner alienation
from reality. Their paintings tell us about this. It still happens that artists
sometimes tell us something positive, and that they suddenly become
lyrical about something beautiful that has struck them. Then we should
not criticize them because they do not use the same iconic language as
the seventeenth-century artists used. Just as we cannot blame an
Englishman when he does not speak in Dutch. The twentieth-century
language coined by modern artists, we all know very well. Nearly all good
advertisements – for King Cross cigarettes, for road safety, for a beautiful
exhibition in the Rijksmuseum, for Pastoe furniture or King peppermints
– there is a wide choice of examples – make use of the new iconic means
without anybody having a problem with it. The difficulty with modern art
is only very partially due to the means of expression; it is much more due
to the vision of reality, with which the artists are so much in conflict.
Is visual art important? Certainly! To a certain extent even more
important – inasmuch as it forces itself upon us much more frequently
– than music or literature! We are not obliged to listen to music or open
a book – it is another question whether we do not harm ourselves by
closing ourselves off from our fellow human beings and leaving a gift
from God unused – but not to look is simply impossible. We cannot do
otherwise, we have to perceive things. As soon as we look at a wall we see
an advertisement, as soon as we pay attention to a building we see an
ornament, as soon as we pick up an illustrated book we are dealing with
visual art of better or worse quality.
Especially because it is impossible not to look we are very
impoverished if we cannot look well, in other words, if we cannot ‘see’.
Obviously I do not mean this in the way that an ophthalmologist would,
but in a deeper sense. We can overlook so much beauty and detail. We
can pass by so much without noticing. We can be poverty stricken, in
rags, in our looking, if we never train ourselves, if we always neglect this
aspect of our being. That is why it is so bad when unimaginative, ugly
paintings hang on the wall in our – your? – homes. Because such things
spoil our ability to see, pull us down to the level of their own lack of
fantasy. They teach us to see with the same dead and lifeless formulae by
which they were made. In this way what is fresh and lively becomes grey
and monotonous; because of this we see only monotony and bare
emptiness, when in actual fact there is perhaps beauty all around us. Bad
art is poisonous. Its effect is perhaps untraceable, its influence seemingly
unnoticeable, but a person who owns only small kitsch landscapes –
bought in the frame store: ‘Real oil paint on canvas, sir’ – and only looks
at this kind of work, is like a person who only listens to bad sermons and
never opens the Bible to draw living water. There is only one advantage:
you will not notice that bad trash after a while. It deadens looking so
thoroughly that it itself also fades away.
And what about modern art? Those strange monstrosities?
Those unintelligible lines? Well, you are somewhat biased and too
generalizing. But also those ‘strange’ things are important. Because
others, who are working in the same cultural context where this art was
born, find these things important and apparently recognize themselves
in them and feel spiritually at home there. Art gives a vision of reality.
Surely, this vision can be a lie! But if this view of the world in which we
live is shared by many, if nihilism in art is nothing but an expression of
nihilism which, as the spirit of this age, reigns nearly supreme, then we
may not ignore it – even if it were only in order to discover how we too
are perhaps much more affected by the evil all around us than we ever
suspected – and also to understand our own time so that we can fulfil our
task of being salt in it.
Really, you do understand modern art. But you think that you have
to appreciate it. Why? That was not the intention of the artist, and maybe
the work could not be beautiful because the Lord our God was hated.
You really do understand it, even though you may not be able to hold a
discourse on it. Artists think with their brushes, and maybe you consider
their thinking to be empty, chaotic, brute, unharmonic, a curse. It could
well be that you are right. But, if as a result you have come to understand
something of the spirit of the age, then at the same time you would have
been cured of any optimism about humanity which you might have
taken not from a biblical but from a humanistic source and which
perhaps has held you captive against your better judgment. And you will
be able to judge better what is going on in the world as well – you will be
able to fathom more deeply the problems of our time. And therefore
you will be able to act more sensibly, healthily and possibly more
Let us conclude with a word about beautiful art. Consider a beautiful
little painting. It can hang in a museum but also in your own home. After
all, you do not have to own a great masterpiece. A ‘small’ piece can also
be ‘a joy for ever’. Or, why do we talk about a small painting at all, why
not about a beautiful little sculpture on your mantelpiece, a well laid-out
book, a well-formed glass, a beautiful rug? Why should we not talk about
an imaginative chair? Yes, it can exist, it does exist, and if you have not
discovered something like that, then you now know that you have never
really looked. We can talk about a chair because I was asked to write
about visual art. With these examples I only want to emphasize that we
do not have to look far to find beauty of form, colour and relationships,
and that anyone who wants to ban beauty from his or her life – ‘politics
are much more important’ – is impoverishing life in a dangerous way.
We can easily live without art: throw everything out the door, sit in a
bare room on a chest and eat with our hands out of the pots! What will
we eat? Eggs without salt, salad without dressing, and never anything
special. I once wrote that in our time we live in the wilderness if we
belong to the rest of the offspring of the Woman (Revelation 12). I can
tell you that when I wrote this I did not have in mind this godless neglect
of God’s gifts, this deadening of the joie de vivre, this spiritual poverty.
Originally published in Dutch in Ruimte 4, 6/7, 1958.
Published in English in M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker: The Complete Works 4, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003.