I love this quote. I think that is what all art really is– an expression of feeling. Emotion. I know my best work, or at least the work that I feel is most directly connected to who I truly am as a human being, is always focused on expressing emotion rather than depicting any one place or person or thing. At its best, the piece as a whole becomes a vehicle for expression and the subject is merely a focal point in this expression. The subject matter becomes irrelevant beyond that. It could be a the most innocuous object, a chair or a tree in my case. It doesn’t really matter because the painting’s emotion is carried by the painting as a whole- the colors, the texture, the linework, the brushstrokes, etc.
In other words, it’s not what you see but what you feel.
I think many of Vincent Van Gogh‘s works are amazing example of this. They are so filled with emotion that you often don’t even realize how mundane the subject matter really is until you step back to analyze it for a moment. I’ve described here before what an incredible feeling it was to see one of his paintings for the first time, how it seemed to vibrate with feeling, seeming almost alive on the wall. It was a vase of irises. A few flowers in a pot. How many hundreds of thousands of such paintings have been created just like that? But Van Gogh resonates not because of the subject matter, not because of precise depiction of the flowers or the vase. No, it was a deep expression of his emotion, his wonder at the world he inhabited, inside and out.
I also see this in a lot of music. It’s not the subject but the way the song is expressed. How many times have we heard overwrought , schmaltzy ballads that try to create overt emotion and never seem to pull it off? Then you hear someone interpret a simple song with deep and direct emotion and the song soars powerfully. I often use Johnny Cash‘s last recordings, in the last years and months before his death, as evidence of this. Many were his interpretations of well known songs and his voice had, by that time, lost much of the power of his earlier days. But the emotion, the wonder, in his delivery was palpable. Moving.
Likewise, here’s Chet Baker from just a few months before his death. He, too, had lost the power and grace of youth due to a life scarred by the hardship of drug abuse and violence. But the expression is raw and real. It makes this interpretation of Little Girl Blue stand out for me.