Wednesday, August 02, 2006

How to Appreciate Art (and you already do)

One of the best parts of the Louvre (and a way to avoid the urge to strangle the mobs of tourists there) was watching how different cultures look at art. For example, the French will actually pose in front of the paintings, like models at the end of the catwalk. They stick out a hip and rest a hand on it, while their other hand is up beside their head and a bit limp. And they pout. If they could do this smoking, they would. They're probably my second favorite; my favorite would have to be the Italians, who do the exact same thing, but in a lot less clothing. I have no idea why Italians dress like they're at the sex club to go to the art gallery, but it makes their posing in front of paintings a subtle struggle between fleshy geometry versus skimpy clothing. Bellisimo!

The Japanese are always together in large groups. I have two theories as to why this is. Either it's hard to travel from Japan unless you book a group tour, or people just say to their spouse: "I'd really like to go to France," and the spouse responds: "But, we only know about 14 people who can go with us. Can we really travel with only 16 people?" The other entertaining thing is that the Japanese tourists we saw were often quite happy to listen to the recorded headphone introductions to the paintings and not actually look at the paintings themselves; just keeping on their way with their heads down.

The Americans I saw were generally in a hurry to get out of the gallery, and would sort of pause briefly before each painting, look annoyed, and stomp off. In our whole time in Paris, we only once saw American tourists that weren't bitching. And the Canadians were often just as bad. Claire was very embarassed by a group of Canucks in the Louvre who had cornered a poor French man and were griping about how expensive French coffee is. "We can get three cups in Canada for the price of one here! And we get free refills!" Forget the art! Let's talk about the coffee! The guy listening looked like a trapped animal.

Even more annoying was listening to Americans who saw through all of this 'art' claptrap. "What's the big deal? People just like the Mona Lisa because it's famous, and it's only famous because so many people like it!" Well, that settles that. Let's throw her in the basement! In nearly every room, you could hear this naysaying. "What's the big deal about all these Virgin Mary paintings?" "Why is everybody always naked?" "This stuff is just boring. I don't get it!" At points I wanted to say "You know, you didn't have to come here."

A lot of people say that they don't 'get' art. They think that there's some arcane language that explains a sculpture like the dying slave that they're not in on. They develop a resentment to the 'elitist' and 'pretentious' world of art appreciation which seems too esoteric and pointless to them. They'll say things like: "I guess art just isn't for me. To me, that just looks like some naked guy who's dying."

But, art requires no real special knowledge to appreciate it. Visual arts especially, but also musical arts act on us in a certain way that is quite often direct and immediate. I have no idea about musical scales or time signatures, but I get chills when I hear Mozart's Requiem. Similarly, I remember almost nothing about mythology, but certain statues of mythical figures give me chills, even though I don't know the stories behind them. Visual art often speaks in a kinesthetic way- the dying slave is pure body language. Once we get over the strangeness of observing the bodies of others (something that is very healthy to do, I think), we pick up on the emotions conveyed through the position of a hand or a hip. We see another communicating to us in a silent language that is actually universal.

Children are the best to observe when they first see art. They delight in it, and often pick up on what's going on in it. I think it's because they don't really care who Laocoon was, just that he's in great pain while being killed by a huge serpent. It's hard not to respond to that in some way!

But, many adults don't. What happens, I think, is that people get told in school or the culture that their appreciation of art is too naive. That they don't really 'get' it because they don't know who Laocoon was, or what this sculpture says about the Roman borrowings from Greek culture, or gender roles, or whatever it is this week. And those things might add to our understanding and appreciation of art, but they aren't the basis of it: our experience of art is. There is no academic replacement for just standing in awe in front of a work of art.

By the time you get to university, this gets even more arcane. Professors tell you that you don't really get Jane Austen because you don't see her underlying critique of capitalism, or that you don't really get Melville's implicit support for imperialism. The simple joy or frission of being with art gets looked down upon by snide seminar students- rave about art and they act like you're hopelessly old-fashioned. Before long, you start to believe that you really are missing the point of art.

But, the point of art is discovered in the encounter with it. Eugene Delacroix said that visual art creates a meeting point between the spectator and the work of art. It acts upon us, and we bring it to life through our responses. The endless movie that is the subconscious incorporates the artwork into its story line and is subtly changed by it. So, we often understand art in the same way that we understand a kiss.

Susan Sontag once said that we need not an aesthetic, but an erotics of art. People have said that this was meaningless, but it isn't. We need to explain to people who don't 'get' art what a direct and thrilling experience it is to be with it. We need to be enthusiastic and encouraging. To give an example from my life- as an undergraduate, we had a professor of modernist literature who used to complain in nearly every lecture about the fact that people don't read Proust anymore. Why she never tried assigning Proust (who wrote modernist literature) is totally beyond me, but she stuck with the guilt trip. People who didn't read Proust are just flawed somehow in her mind. When Monsieur Proust came up in a seminar recently, our professor responded in a much diferent way- he was exuberant. "Oh you've got to read In Search of Lost Time! It's only the best novel ever!" Everyone left wanting to read it, and I wanted to re-read it.

Now, I'm not opposed to specialized knowledge. It adds a level of appreciation. But, this doesn't mean that the raw and direct joy, or horror, or sorrow that art evokes is somehow naive or misguided. When I first saw the film Persona it buried me. I had no idea who Ingmar Bergman was, or what was going on in half of it. I had no idea how much of it related to his own nervous breakdown, or the images that he used from his other films in it, or the allusions to classical drama. All I had was the experience of watching two women engaging in bizarre psychic warfare with each other. And that was enough to love the film. Now that I know all about those things, I have more layers of appreciation to draw on, but that doesn't mean that my direct experience was less precious or meaningful. It's like my relationship with Claire- it was love at first sight, and that's still there, but it's deeper now.

I also realize that, as there is a pseudo-intellectualism, there is also a pseudo-stupidity that is quite common. I call it 'dude culture', and it tends to actively shun 'faggy' things like art and literature. It's a cop out, and a pretension, and a bore. But, it's bearing down on us these days, isn't it? Some of those people who crow about how they don't 'get' these nude paintings, or how they're just not readers, are really proud of it, and they don't want our erotics of art. They want the tits and beer, dude.

But, they need not concern us. What should concern us is not talking down to those people who don't 'get' art, but who would sort of like to. We need to encourage them, and let them know that they really do get art- they've just been insulted by the fakes and frauds. Camille Paglia once said that your love for art and literature- that too is a theory. That too is a human experience, and it opens up spaces in your mind that never existed before. It is enriching and rewarding and should be encouraged. We need to express our joy at these experiences, and learn to do so even when we feel foolish for doing so. Because this matters.


Anonymous said...

So funny. I like your article.

Anonymous said...

So funny. I like your article.

Anonymous said...

great one, rufus. i'd love to read what you write. if you aren't writing extensively already, take my advice to do so... you have that priceless fluidity in you.


Anonymous said...

"Some of those people who crow about how they don't 'get' these nude paintings, or how they're just not readers, are really proud of it, and they don't want our erotics of art. They want the tits and beer, dude."

i like it.
i really enjoyed this (:

Jen said...

This is wonderful. As a writer, I have had many people tell me they "just can't write," or they "just aren't good at it." But almost anyone can verbally tell a story worth listening to, about something they saw or that happened to them. People are intimidated by seeing their words on paper or a monitor, and get too caught up in spelling or grammar, losing the thread of their story. I think this is a real shame, and is related to what you're saying about art appreciation.

So, thank you. You've inspired me to brave a museum with my children!

Sean said...

Wonderful post. A young musician friend said to me recently, while I was spouting off about a musical group I love: "You don't have to know everything about it to like it." How right the two of you are. How right indeed.

Anonymous said...

Brim over I assent to but I about the collection should prepare more info then it has.

kat said...

nice piece of writing on a topic close to my heart.

Knowingart said...

It seems you have a slight spam problem here.

Rufus said...

I do, yes. I'm working to delete them all.

Anonymous said...

I'll right away snatch your rss as I can not find your e-mail subscription hyperlink or e-newsletter service. Do you've any?

Please permit me recognise so that I could subscribe.


Here is my webpage; Kristy
Also see my web site - Call us

Anonymous said...

Appreciation to my father who told me about this
weblog, this webpage is really remarkable.

Feel free to visit my weblog -

Anonymous said...

Hi there everybody, here every one is sharing
such familiarity, therefore it's nice to read this webpage, and I used to go to see this weblog every day.

Also visit my webpage :: getting a mortgage with bad credit

Anonymous said...

Excellent beat ! I would like to apprentice while you amend your web site, how could i subscribe for a blog website?
The account helped me a acceptable deal. I had been tiny bit acquainted of this your broadcast offered bright clear idea

Here is my web blog ... Read full article