Something not there before

MANY people, including some art critics, seem to think that artists transfer their own personal emotion directly to a canvas, a poem, or a musical composition. They believe that there it is, somehow magically incorporated in the work. If we look deeper, however, we find that the life, experience, feeling in the painting are always virtual life, experience, feeling. What's on the canvas is paint, other physical substances, or both, and these have no life and no life-transmitting power. The painting is in itself, in its entirety, a symbol - a form, a type - and it speaks life only in the most supra-personal, generic way. This imper-sonality of art explains why a quiet man can create violent paintings or a violent man, quiet ones.

Personal feeling, if it occurs in art at all, is greatly transformed in and by the work of art. Susanne K. Langer in her important book, ''Feeling and Form'' (1953), writes: ''Art is the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling.'' And: ''A work of art . . . is more than an arrangement of 'given' things - even of qualitative things. Something emerges from the arrangement of tones or colors, which was not there before, and this, rather than the arranged material, is the symbol of sentience.''

We tend to get hung up on academic terms when we think of art or look at it - vision, light, abstraction, and so on. Yet, even the copied red barn is only the copier's ''vision'' of it. The barn is still out there in the field! Light, for example, in any work - from the finest Rembrandt to a comic strip - is an illusion, and only an illusion. And all paintings use abstraction as a means, though in vastly varying degrees.

Genuine works of art produce an immediate emotional impact on the viewer, at least on the viewer who suspends his judgment long enough to allow them to do so. And this impact is basically independent of whether one sees the painting as a landscape, a dreamscape, a hodgepodge, or an abstraction. It can be one, some, all, or none of these.

What emerges from a good painting, regardless of its ''subject,'' should be poignantly symbolic of human feeling - a spinoff, ''something which was not there before.'' The effect is produced by color and spatial form and how the artist relates these to each other. The tone may vary greatly, from ominous to soothing. The important point is that, far from being an overflow for personal feelings, the act of painting is an essential affirmation of universal - not personal - life.

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