February 26, 2004


That’s a tiny title for a subject as big as the universe. I have the pleasure of having several real artists as co-workers. I’m not talking about making-a-living-at-it artists, but each of them, in their own way, considers themselves an artist, and I agree with them. These are guys who work for a living. Some artists live for art, but like everyone else, most artists know that it’s kinda nice to have a roof over one’s head, and you do what needs doing to pay the rent. It makes for interesting conversations.

What got me to thinking about this subject is that a co-worker, Kyle, mentioned that the Hirschhorn Museum is having an event this weekend called 24 Hour Psycho. It’s kind of an odd one, and we got to discussing aspects of it. Briefly, an artist has stretched the Hitchcock classic into a full 24-hour event, apparently by viewing most of the movie in slow motion. There’s more to it of course (there’d better be), but that’s the gist of it. My attitude is that I’d love to be able to say I saw it, without actually inflicting myself with the performance, because it sounds deadly dull.

We’ve often talked about what constitutes art and what it means. I always figured I have a pedestrian “I know what I like” kind of taste, while feeling that I was somehow missing out on something because I had no formal education in it. More than once I’ve suggested that we go to the Smithsonian or other art museums as a group so I could pick their brains on what they saw compared to what I saw.

I’ve come to realize that formal training doesn't necessarily increase your appreciation. At best it gives you the ability to describe a work in esoteric terms, making one sound like a pretentious ass. At worst, you wind up with a superiority complex, which actually makes you a pretentious ass. Appreciation can be instinctive, but appreciation and understanding are two different things.

Many people’s exposure to art amounts to picking up a copy of Smithsonian magazine in a waiting room and glancing at the pictures in an article you don’t bother reading. Not a thing wrong with that, but sometimes in order to understand art you need context.

Say you’re wandering through a gallery, and there’s a warehouse pallet on the floor, with a couple of crates on top. Maybe one is opened, and the packing peanuts are scattered around on the floor.

Why in the world is there a velvet rope barricade around that?

The little exhibit sheet might give you a few words about it, but many people don’t bother to read it. The brass plaque next to it tells you even less. But if you knew that it’s saying something about, oh, shipping artworks, then it might start to make a little sense. The seemingly random elements take on meaning, maybe.

I’m impressed by art that needs no contextual clues to make sense. A beautiful piece of instrumental music, a painted landscape or a perfectly sculpted piece evokes an emotion. You don’t need to know what the composer thought, only what it makes you think about as you hear it. If you don’t recognize the subject of a sculpture, at the very least you’ll know in your own soul whether it is pleasing to you.

Context doesn’t have to be universal either. Willie Nelson has written hundreds of beautiful songs, few of which would appeal to someone who hates country music. That doesn’t diminish the beauty, it only limits the scope of admirers. Once again, there’s not a thing wrong with that. Taste is individual.

If you don’t get it, it’s not your fault. There might not be anything to get, or it might be so alien to your viewpoint that you’d never understand enough to get it. The percentage of art that actually means something beyond the moment of its creation is small enough that it approaches zero.

And that might be the true genius of classic art.

The Mona Lisa is priceless, because it matters still. A sonnet by Keats, a Vivaldi concerto, photos of Yosemite by Adams and the Taj Mahal transcend time and culture to remain meaningful to human hearts.

Within thirty years, Madonna will be lumped in with Neil Sedaka as moderately successful musical celebrities of their day. Enthusiasts and collectors will be able to spew volumes of information about them, but most folks will vaguely recognize their songs and some might even know who the performer is.

I’m kind of wandering all over the surface of the subject here, and I don’t exactly know how to end this. I’m not even sure I had a specific point to make, other than that everyone should take a little time out once in a while and indulge your spirit with a visit to an art gallery or museum, or to an event you might not normally attend. Don’t try too hard to judge or understand, just observe and absorb, letting your emotions ebb and flow as they will. It’s good for the soul.

Laughing Wolf posted a wonderful piece about a ballet he recently attended. I’m definitely not the ballet type, but after reading his remarks I think I’d like to see one, just for the experience. Who knows, I might actually like it.

Posted by Ted at February 26, 2004 10:50 AM
Category: Square Pegs

I used to get the Journal of the American Medical Association. My favorite part was the cover, which pictured a piece of art (usually a painting) and the one page essay that accompanied it. The essay provided background on the artist, the subject, the history...context. I think I appreciate the work more when I understand it, but your distinction between appreciation and understanding is a good one. I think I'll work that into my pretentious ass pratter next time I'm in a gallery... ;-)

Posted by: nic at February 26, 2004 11:45 AM

You've reminded me of a scene from LA Story:

[Admiring a painting]
Harris K. Telemacher (Steve Martin): I like the relationships. I mean, each character has his own story. The puppy is a bit too much, but you have to overlook things like that in these kinds of paintings. The way he's *holding* her... it's almost... filthy. I mean, he's about to kiss her and she's pulling away. The way the leg's sort of smashed up against her... Phew... Look how he's painted the blouse sort of translucent. You can just make out her breasts underneath and it's sort of touching him about here. It's really... pretty torrid, don't you think? Then of course you have the onlookers peeking at them from behind the doorway like they're all shocked. They wish. Yeah, I must admit, when I see a painting like this, I get emotionally... erect.

[the painting is revealed to be of a red rectangle]

I'm trying to memorize this soliloquy, just so I can whip it out if I ever go to an art exhibit.

Posted by: Rob @ L&R at February 26, 2004 12:04 PM

Does anyone know what the name of that painting in L.A. Story is?

Posted by: Samshann at May 20, 2004 02:57 AM
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