Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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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