How is it that a painting of an apple can have so much more impact, culturally speaking, than an actual apple? How can a picture convey seemingly universal messages across countless generations, yet also mean different things to different viewers? And how is it possible to recognize "good" art instantly, without time to analyze or evaluate it?
Archaeologist David Lewis-Williams made the observation that the oldest known rock paintings are like membranes, allowing selective access to a spiritual world beyond the painted surface, and that this may be the reason for their creation. I propose that all paintings have this quality, and that the act of painting is the creation of a membrane. The nature of this membrane is to allow the passage of information in both directions while filtering the kind and amount.
For example, the painter has certain intentions, knowledge and experience, some of which is effectively contained in the painting, and some of which can be read by a particular viewer, depending on that viewer's intentions, knowledge and experience at the time. There may also be content that both the artist and the viewer are unaware of, but may be perfectly evident to another viewer. There could be a cultural or historical reference, such as a mythical character like Jonah, who appears without the artist's deliberate intent, and escapes the notice of the viewer, but is nevertheless powerfully present and waiting for the opportunity to find full expression for the right viewer at the right time.
This is consistent with the behaviour of Carl Jung's archetypes, which he believed to be autonomous, surfacing from a shared unconscious realm, and recognized as familiar figures because we are not capable of comprehending their true nature. The figure of Jonah might be the same archetype as the shaman who is devoured by a wolf. Yet another archetype might appear as a tree that reaches up to another world, like Jack's beanstalk, or as a sacred mountain or the tower of Babel.
It may be the archetypal content of paintings crossing the membrane at will for the right person at the right time that lends some paintings their mysterious and changeable power, a power that may strike the sensitive viewer directly and immediately, conveying a sense of importance that makes it feel like "good" art without a clear understanding of the reason.