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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