Reflection on a Painting of a Cow Reflecting on a Painting of a Cow 9

The Innocent Eye Test, by Mark Tansey:

Click on image to enlarge

I think of the painted picture as an embodiment of the very problem that we face with the notion “reality.” The problem or question is, which reality? In a painted picture, is it the depicted reality, or the reality of the picture plane, or the multidimensional reality the artist and viewer exist in? That all three are involved points to the fact that pictures are inherently problematic. This problem is not one that can or ought to be eradicated by reductionist or purist solutions. We know that to successfully achieve the real is to destroy the medium; there is more to be achieved by using it than through its destruction.

—Mark Tansey, quoted in Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, by Arthur C. Danto

I used to enjoy visiting this huge 78 x 120 inch painting when it was on display at the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York (The MET), and so I was sad to learn that the painting had been sold to a private owner back in May of 2011 (more on the controversy surrounding the sale later).

A few years ago, I had one of my biggest biltrix moments while contemplating this work of art — what my friend John might have called an epiphany. But it was more than just an epiphany. It was a biltrix.

I was at the MET, gazing at this painting of a cow gazing at a painting of a cow, trying to gain a deeper understanding as to why the author gave it the title The Innocent Eye Test. While I was standing there, alone, others began to gather around, joining me in contemplation. I assumed that they were contemplating from the looks of amusement and bewilderment on their faces.

I caught myself taking in the contemplative gaze of the viewers and admiring them for showing their appreciation for something that I also enjoyed (though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what made me enjoy it so much). So I stepped back out of the way to let them enjoy the picture more, while I stood at a distance to take in the whole scene.

Then it hit me. A minute before, they were watching me watching the paining; now I was watching them watching the painting; and I could clearly see now that they were doing exactly what the cow in the painting was doing. I started looking around to see if anyone was watching me, watching them, watching a painting of a cow watching a painting of a cow. The fact that the paining in the painting was also in a museum (like we were) put it all into perspective. It was the central Idea of Plato’s cave on canvas, and we were all unwittingly participating in it.

I agree, it’s freaky. It was freaky for the people in Plato’s cave too (if you can’t relate to what I’m saying, you need to read Plato’s Republic). So I did not have the guts to run up to the people who were so taken in by the painting and say, “Guys! Your behaving like that cow in the painting!”

What’s the Biltrix?

This may not be exactly what the author had in mind, but here’s one of the things I took from this experience. Sometimes we need to step away, step back, step out of the picture to get a look at the picture and see what’s really going on. We can be so absorbed in the banal sometimes that we lose sight of the sublime. Unlike cows, people have the capacity to transcend but we only realize this when we reflect on our own human reality and grasp our capacity for transcendence. When we do this, we realize that we transcend even ourselves. When we don’t do this… We’re stuck. Kind of like a cow.

In the words of the great St Augustine:

Noli foras ire, in te ipsum redi, in interiore homine habitat veritas, etsi tuam naturam mutabilem inveneris, trascende et te ipsum! (De vera religione XXXIX)

Do not go outside [yourself], but return inside yourself; Truth resides in the inner man, and if you find [inside yourself] your mutable nature, transcend even yourself!

It’s too simple to understand. All too often, the banal things in life distract us from the more relevant reality, the missing point.

The present controversy surrounding the painting

As I mentioned earlier, Mark Tansey’s painting was taken from the MET and sold to a private owner. Apparently, however, the MET owns 31% of the painting (I suppose that would amount to the portion of the canvas that comprises the painting within the painting and maybe the extra cow if you were to cut it up; but I’m not King Solomon). Furthermore, the MET claims that the original owner had promised that the painting would eventually belong, in full, to the MET. The case has gone to court, so perhaps we’ll see Mark Tansey’s The Innocent Eye Test back in the museum, where it belongs (museum: seat of the muses; the place where people muse and become amused). No pun on the word “moo!” intended.

[Photo of this painting taken at the Met by "Perpetual Learner" Fr Matthew Green]

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