Our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits have long been at work, and it is the task of art to undo this work of theirs, making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to the depths where what has really existed lies unknown within us.
In 1872, the year after Proust was born, Claude Monet exhibited a canvas entitled Impression, Sunrise. It depicted the harbor of Le Havre at dawn, and allowed viewers to discern, through a thick morning mist and a medley of unusually choppy brushstrokes, the outline of an industrial seafront, with an array of cranes, smoking chimneys, and buildings.
The canvas looked a bewildering mess to most who saw it, and particularly irritated the critics of the day, who pejoratively dubbed its creator and the loose group to which he belonged “impressionists,” indicating that Monet’s control of the technical side of painting was so limited that all he had been able to achieve was a childish daubing, bearing precious little resemblance to what dawns in Le Havre really looked like.
The contrast with the judgment of the art establishment a few years later could hardly have been greater. It seemed that not only could the Impressionists use a brush after all, but that their technique was masterful at capturing a dimension of visual reality overlooked by less talented contemporaries.
That is the task of art: to paint what one actually sees, as opposed to what one knows one sees. To undo our presumptions so we do not stumble through life as though bashing through the woods, with the sole purpose of checking out.