I recently heard someone say “art is not what it is, it’s what it does to you.” What a fascinating and insightful description. It’s not the symphony itself that is art, but the emotion it evokes when you hear it, the feeling you can’t avoid when it’s played. It is not the notes written on a page, but the unavoidable sadness or inspiration or pride you feel when they’re played together. The same can be said for a great novel or painting. It’s only really art if it does something to you personally.
I thought about this description recently as I climbed to the top of the Old Town Hall located in Prague’s Old Town Square. Yes, I admit I went there to photograph, but I also went there to see, to experience, to absorb. When I got to the top viewing area, it was packed with tourists, and every single one of them had a camera – either an iPhone or a professional tripod and camera. What interested me most was how most people were jockeying for position, setting up tripods, framing their shots, all while seemingly missing the entire point. Many of them probably got great photographs, but few, if any, seemed to even see the scene before them. They were so pre-occupied with the photograph they wanted to view from their computer back home, or on social media, or even in print, they seemed not to have allowed the art before them “do something.” It reminded me of the great part in Good Will Hunting when Sean McGuire tells Will he could probably tell him all about Michelangelo, his political aspirations, his relationship with the pope, etc. then says, “But, I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.”
Perhaps this insight hits me more because I do love to take photographs. I have been the guy who focused so much on framing the image that I missed the art itself. This post is most likely a reminder and lesson to myself. I don’t want to miss what the art surrounding me in Prague will “do to me.” So, I will wait next time. I will smell next time. I will feel next time. I will live.