Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Art Appreciation

Monday, March 8, 2010

I did a reading yesterday at the Concord Free Library. As invariably happens, I found myself feeling grateful for the turnout of people who came to hear poetry. To really hear it, in the most profound sense. To open themselves to the experience and take in the sound and sense of someone else's words.

It was a fresh reminder of our human hunger for art at all levels, which runs so sadly counter to all the knee-jerk budget slashing that throws arts programs overboard first in any school budget cutbacks.

I was thinking of that on Saturday night when my friends Erica and Don and I watched a fascinating documentary film called “Herb and Dorothy.” It’s about Herb and Dorothy Vogel, who, on modest civil service incomes, amassed an art collection now housed at the National Art Gallery in Washington, with overflow pieces being parceled out throughout the 50 states. It is a story of people who simply loved art and who took the time to pay attention, to look carefully, and also to talk with artists about their work.

Although the experience begins in pleasure, it’s a hugely generous thing to open oneself fully to art. To try to understand what was behind the creation of a work involves the kind of deep connection between people that lets us bring the best of ourselves to each other. I often find it useful and fun--especially when confronted, say, with a painting or with music that feels challenging--to try to imagine what its creator might have felt in the process. What was he or she thinking about? Trying to do? Wanting us to notice?

I was in London recently and, on walking into the British Museum, was drawn to an exhibit of one of the museum’s oldest items, a pair of reindeer, apparently swimming. It was carved into the tip of a mammoth tusk, possibly 13,000 years ago. Why? There is no way to know. We may guess that it was some kind of totem. Or it might have been carved in tribute to the animals that provided sustenance. But there is also the possibility that the carver created it solely as an expression of the world around him or her. Art! Our earliest evidence of its centrality in our lives.

Maybe it’s art that, at the deepest level, makes us human. And, whether or not we recognize it, our willingness to experience art, as much as our ability to make it, is our most basic human connection.

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What is art good for?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Today was the final day of the Kandinsky exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan and I was glad I got there to see it. The Guggenheim is stunning, though, as my companion observed, maybe better for looking at people looking at art than for actually looking at art. There’s often an assumption with Frank Lloyd Wright buildings that human comfort can be sacrificed for artistic integrity. Perfect tradeoff in this case, even though the sloping ramp can feel like an uphill slog and the work doesn’t always seem shown to best advantage. And in this exhibit you get “looking at people looking at art” at its best: across the sky-lighted space you see people in dark silhouette against canvases exploding with color--quite amazing.

I read, in the wall text, about how as a young man Wassily Kandinsky had two experiences that determined his artistic mission--seeing one of Monet’s Haystack paintings and hearing a performance of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. He came away, it said, determined to create an emotional reaction through color and composition and, like music, in the absence of a recognizable subject. And above all, he believed in the transformative power of art to inspire human beings to a higher level of living.

As I walked the ramp and looked at painting after painting, I came upon several school groups clustered with their teachers in front of paintings. In each case, hands were eagerly being raised and ideas offered about the work. In each case the group was spending time looking carefully at paintings that offered no easy way in. It made me think of all the school budgets in which art education is one of the first things to go.

It made me wonder what the “takeaway” is from a school day. What, years from now, will those children remember? Photosynthesis? The rules of grammar? (I hope so!) The Treaty of Ghent? Certainly all of these. But more. How about the ability to look hard at a baffling painting and try to find something in it that tells them something new about their lives? How about the ability to appreciate what art can do?

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