The Innocent Eye Test

I am one of a very small group of people I know who have a ‘favorite artist’.

How do you even begin appreciating art? Year after year, I’ve made trips to art galleries, looking at art, and trying to understand why the heck people pay millions for a canvas of colored dots or a picture of naked women. I know it must mean something to someone, because otherwise, someone would have wised up and exposed art for the fraud that it is. The problem is, it’s a foreign language to me. It’s like reading a book in a language no one bothered to teach you. There must be a gentle introduction into art, it’s just that I’ve never known it.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that all art lovers are old people. I mean, amongst my entire circle of friends – and this may even include every single person in my generation whom I have had a conversation with – I don’t know of anyone who appreciates ‘fine art’. Or for that matter, anyone who can tell the difference between fine art and rotten art.

So I consider myself exceptional because I actually have a favorite artist. And his name is Mark Tansey.

It all goes back to the day when I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (in New York) with Neville. And after walking through several paintings, some of which were pretty but all of which were dumb as a doorknob to me, Neville steered me in the direction of a painting which he thought I would find interesting. As we were walking towards it, he told me about the “Innocent Eye Test”. If you’re an art critic trying to evaluate the potential of an unknown and anonymous artist, how do you do it? One way is to ask someone who has no art expertise whatsoever to look at a painting of the artist, and give an opinion. If it appeals, the idea is that it appeals to something deeper than ‘learned appreciation’ in the human psyche, and is therefore a purer form of criticism. This is called the “Innocent Eye Test”.

Tansey’s Innocent Eye Test looks like this:

Now, before you read any further. What do you think of the painting?


For me, the painting is, at the first level, very funny. Scientists are evaluating the response of a cow to a painting of a cow to figure out how good the painting is. It’s so ridiculous, it’s sublime!

At the second level, the painting is incredibly well-executed. The realism is fantastic, down to the man with a mop to clean up after the cow if the reaction is, let’s say, ‘unfavorable’. The picture that is shown to the cow is another famous painting – Paulus Potter’s “The Young Bull”. (So at some level, the cow is being shown bovine pornography…!)

At the third level, the painting is self-referential. There’s the story about two famous artists who face off against each other – the first draws a painting of grapes that is so realistic that birds peck at it, and the second, when asked to unveil the curtain before his painting, tells us his painting is the curtain itself.

Tansey’s painting invites us to take it seriously, and by doing that, it mocks us, the ‘innocent eyes’, who are mocking a cow that is participating in an innocent eye test.


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