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  • Phil McLoughlin

Expert by experience

Anyone who suggests that you should ‘get real’ is showing their age. What was ‘cool’ in the late 20th century now has a definite ‘retro’ feel and not just because we are living in the post-truth era. Who cares about ‘reality’ any more? And which particular ‘reality’ are you talking about?


Reality and its sibling ‘realism’ is still a big deal in the art world, if only for those studying art history. In my youth ‘good’ art was something that reflected ‘reality’. A portrait that didn’t closely resemble the sitter was clearly ‘bad’. After the advent of the camera artists could no longer take liberties with the sitter, apart from making them appear more attractive, powerful or intelligent. But it seems obvious that all artists translate the reality of the world beyond their eyes. Was this an exact translation of ‘reality’ or simply what they thought they saw? The visual arts have always been about interpretation rather than a direct, literal translation.



A young girl once told her mother that she could see colours differently with each eye. The mother told her never to tell this story to anyone else. Her exact reasoning was never explained but, eventually, the child worked out that it had a lot to do with ‘fitting in’ with the social etiquette of the Scots working class. I grew up in the same culture and know only too well the warning: “you don’t want people to think you are…(daft, scared, different)” The fear of being seen to be different was worse than the reality of being different. Such warnings introduced children to the idea of consensus reality. If enough people believe in something is real then it is ‘real’.



I came to know that young girl and have spent more than half a century learning about her idiosyncratic ways of seeing and interpreting the world. All these years later she still seems able to see the world in her unique way. She sees the world for what it is – probably still noticing slightly different hues depending on which eye is open.

Like most children, left to wander about unsupervised, she had lots of opportunities to encounter her world: meeting it with no assumptions, no guidebook, no boundaries. All she had was plain, simple curiosity.


She met things for the first time which, by definition, were phenomenal. She did not know – exactly – what these things were, or how they had come about. She could observe them but could not explain them. She was interested in, and often astonished by, what she encountered. Like most of her peers she was blessed with childhood innocence.


Childhood ends for too many not with a ‘coming of age’ but with the death of curiosity and wonder. Teenagers are the ‘know it alls’ who despair of the adult world. In the early 60’s my teenage peers saw adults as ‘squares’. They weren’t ‘in the know’ (or hep as jazz parlance named it). I wasn’t sure what being a ‘hep cat’ really meant but I struggled to attain this status. Sadly, for most young people, the teenage years, however wild, wasteful or unconventional they appear, are often just an extended interview for adulthood - what we used to call ‘squares-ville’.


Ironically, we know now that lots of people see the world differently through different eyes. We are not symmetrical beings. The little girl wasn’t so eccentric after all. But does this difference stop at eyes or even all the senses? Might this difference extend to bigger, more complex aspects of our world-view? What we ‘make’ of life depends ultimately on how we ‘see’ it; whether this is a direct translation or some kind of interpretation. Who could ever tell the difference?





Did Van Gogh really see those swirling skies filled with dancing clouds and stars? Or, did he interpret what he saw, blending it with his mood at the time?


Did Arnolfini and his wife really look so sober or is their iconic image just a bridal couple as witnessed by Van Eyck? Who would know? Ultimately all art is abstract: artists shape an image of something from their experience and transform it into an ‘art object’.



Unfortunately few people get a chance to encounter a Van Gogh or a Van Eyck painting. So many experts have offered interpretations of their work that people see what they have been told to see – whether from a TV programme or an exhibition catalogue.


What seems obvious is that Van Eyck and Van Gogh, like everyone else, saw the world in a peculiar way. What they saw was then filtered and edited through a process unique to them, which became their internal reality. Then they tried to recapture their personal experience on a canvas or board.


Vincent famously said: “I dream my paintings and then I paint my dreams”. If he was here today would anyone bother (or dare) to ask him: “but is this an exact representation of the dream or just an interpretation?”


Like that little girl everyone sees the world in a unique way. Many, however, are afraid to be honest about their experience for fear of being seen as different or simply not ‘with it’.

Perhaps the only reality we can ever really connect with is subjective - the product of our direct experience. All other ‘realities’ are largely indoctrination. Next time you view an art work make your own mind up about what is going on in this painting or that sculpture. Believe the evidence of your own eyes! You might find it more interesting – and so might others, when you tell them.

The artist will thank you for it!

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