This is a story about interpreting a painting or sculpture. ArtNet starts it off with 14 works pronounced “calming.” The list was well-intentioned: “To help you relax despite everything giving you anxiety right now.” The pandemic is still a worry.

Art of anxiety

But here’s the thing. None of the 14 artworks does anything to “relax” me. Just the opposite. They stir reactions ranging from tense to outright trepidation. The words of American essayist Susan Sontag come to mind: “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellectual upon art.”

Interpretation isn’t a fact

Allow me to demonstrate how art interpretation cannot be announced like some factoid.

Personal reactions not only come into play, they’re the whole ballgame. Letting others figure out what an artwork means leaves you on the sidelines.

Of course, this means that my takes on the following works don’t need to be yours.

Finding peace

"Seated Buddha Amitabha," a wooden statue lacquered and gilded portrays the ancient philosopher in meditation. You expect the contemplative state to be tranquil, don’t you? Instead, he looks stiff, rigid, uncomfortable in his lotus position.

Diving in

Vija Celmins’ Untitled painting of the open sea isn’t calming, either. What you see is a vast and choppy ocean – my nemesis owing to near-drowning. Swimming in rough water taught me something I didn’t know.

You can’t raise your arm to ask for help because you need both to battle the turbulence. Lifeguards on the distant shore had no way of knowing I was in trouble. Ergo, Untitled is no soother.

Tangled web

Brice Marden’s "The Attended," a linear abstraction of varicolored tangled lines is not an image to relax by, despite Marden’s often quoted words to those who scratch their heads when looking at his work.

“Just relax and let go.” Go where Brice? Surely not into that tangled configuration you offer.

Love story

Jennifer Guidi’s "Energy of Love" can make you edgy with its jillion little bricks-like forms that converge downward, like water rushing into a drain.

Stormy weather

Thomas Cole‘s "View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts after a Thunderstorm" is another image that can make you edgy with its ill-effect from the storm: a ragged leafless tree that looks ripped from the earth.

In the bedroom

I could go on, but you get the idea. Instead, I’d like to now nominate an artwork that I find calming, even though the artist is known as a madman: Van Gogh‘s "The Bedroom." The room is part of the house he rented in Arles, which he hoped to house not only himself but also fellow painters who needed a place in which to live and work. Known as Yellow House, it made him happy and hopeful.

Out of the shadows

It's because Yellow House made him so happy and hopeful that Van Gogh painted "The Bedroom" and wrote to his brother about it. He told him he wanted the image to ease the mind of all who saw it, which is why he omitted all the shadows. Thanks, Vincent, your painting does what you wanted: it eases the mind. ArtNet, please copy.