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Monthly Archives: May 2009

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So, call it a midlife crisis:  I recently got out my old guitar, its case covered with political slogans and names of punk bands, and tried my hand at a couple songs by Georges Brassens and Nick Drake. The crooning is okay, but the strumming is halting and clumsy, after years of not playing.  It occurred to me (since part of my mind is, subconsciously or not, always thinking about food) that a musical score is a bit like a recipe: the G chord is like an onion, easy to play and always in the pantry, whereas the F7sus4 is like those hard-to-find ingredients (place the truffles and fiddlehead ferns in warmed pistachio oil – puhleese) that certain recipe books sadistically taunt the would-be cook to try and find. Andando, easy and flowing, is how we do the prep work, staccato is like frying, and largo is slow-roasting (the mutton tagine baked at 250 degrees for four hours). Implicit in the recipe is the notion that if we follow it we will have a final product, song or soup, the way its creator intended it to be; it will sound (or taste) delicious. Of course, reproducing it can take a lot of practice, just like my ongoing attempt to master puff pastry, but the fact of the matter is that we have a map, a recipe, a blueprint.

This is different with the visual arts. The painting or sculpture is, so to speak, already cooked and we are invited to dinner. This is especially evident in the sculptures of Claes Oldenberg (who is a School of the Art Institute graduate) or in Dutch still lifes, but it is in fact true of all paintings.  Go into a quiet gallery and listen.  They are whispering to you: eat me, mange-moi, take a bite, i∫ mich; all invitations to a meal. Come as you are.

The problem is that sometimes museum visitors aren’t hungry or they’re not listening closely enough to hear the invitation. How many times have I watched bedraggled, bleary-eyed visitors trudging past paintings as if following an invisible track laid down along the perimeter of the gallery?   The spectacle reminds me of a crazy public health scheme from some twenty years ago (a friend doing her Ph.D. in public health would regale us with stories of penile injuries caused by vacuum cleaners and dissertations on subjects like grass skirt burns in Papua New Guinea): old people would be fitted out with harnesses, the harnesses connected with cords, and the cords connected to tracks in the ceiling,  thereby eliminating all chance of  falling as they ambulated around the prescribed trails in their rooms.

Visitors! Cut those cords, approach that painting, and dig in! Eating a painting, digesting it, making it yours is vastly different from looking at it. Seeing a painting is automatic: it is in front of us and our eyes capture the image. This is similar to feeling pain when touching a hot iron or hearing an ambulance as it screams by. In Art as Experience, John Dewey describes the distinction between looking at the painting and eating it as recognizing it (yep, it’s a painting alright) and perceiving it (creating an sensorial experience with it). Recognition is passive, we see the painting; perception is active and makes certain demands on us (Dewey describes it as an out-going of energy in order to receive and says that we have to plunge into the experience).

So, how to plunge?  First, be selective. I’ve interviewed countless visitors who find museums overwhelming. They are of the mind that if they don’t take a look (recognition) at almost everything that they have, in some way, let down the museum. Balderdash! Instead, go into a room and look around. Perhaps one or two paintings will appeal to you. Perhaps none. Choose only one or two and focus on them. (Would you eat out with every, single person in a given subway car or bus? I think not!)

Second, take your time. In Daniel Pennac’s book School of Evil students find themselves with the following assignment one evening: go home, do nothing for twenty minutes, and share your experience with the class the following day. The students are dumbfounded. Nothing? Not even music? Pennac does this to give them the taste of solitude and of silence. I think it’s the same with a painting: I’ve never had a satisfying experience in front of a painting in less than five minutes and the experience I’m talking about is impossible if someone is jabbering next to you. So, accept the dinner invitation and than settle down, alone, in front of your host.

Third, be present.  Think about the all the flavors and textures of the food.  Great paintings have multiple layers of pleasure, so chew slowly and with intention, so as to enjoy fully.  This means following a narrative if there is one and looking at the colors and forms long enough so that you begin to see patterns that either balance the composition (or intentionally tilt it out of whack). Back up and look. Go closer and gaze. Imagine what you might tell the artist if he or she were to ask your opinion about the painting.

Fourth, acknowledge the effort of the cook. Some of the visitors I’ve interviewed have talked about their awareness of and gratitude for the artist’s gift. Indeed, the artist notices an aspect of beauty (or life) and translates it,  intensifies it, and gives us the opportunity to see it differently. Marcel Proust writes of the gift of painter Johannes Vermeer in Time Regained, the last of in the series In Rememberence of Things Past:

There is no reason inherent in the conditions of this life on earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be fastidious, to be polite even, nor make the talented artist consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work, the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his body devoured by worms. Like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much knowledge and skill by an artist who must forever remain unknown and is barely identified under the name Vermeer.

Finally, indulge yourself that extra glass of wine during the meal, let yourself loosen up and give in; be seduced by the painting!  Every now and then I have an experience that approaches meditation: my mind becomes clear and focused only on the image before me, yielding perhaps only a few moments of plenitude, but leaving me replenished spiritually.  Sometimes this happens when looking at the most mundane of details (gifts) in a painting, such as silver sugar bowl in Fantin-Latour’s Still life, Corner of a Table. French philosopher Simone Weil describes this experience in almost Star-Trekien terms: When we come upon beautiful things […] they act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space.

In the end, the experience you construct with a given painting is utterly unique, a creative act that takes place between you and the work of art.  Some days it might be just a good salad or a nice sandwich, but hang in there, don’t give up:  a four-course meal and a bottle of Bordeaux may be heading your way.

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I would like to thank two friends who, when they read the first draft of this piece, told me it was unclear and unfocused.  I practically rewrote it to get at exactly what I meant.  It made me realize that for me eliminating lots of prose (as opposed to simply rewriting) feels like having a big litter of kittens and having to drown half of them in a river because you simply can’t take care of them.  I wonder if a lot of writers feel this way?

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Yesterday I returned to the Musée d’Orsay.  The first thing I did was to take the five floors up to the Post-Impressionist collection to Douanier Rousseau’s painting War.  Last year I regretted not having taken a picture of it to use in the classes I teach at the Lab School because there is no reproduction available (don’t get me started about the glut of Mona Lisa postcards, posters, puzzles, coasters, clocks and the comparative dearth of other works of art:  this is a whole other issue that deserves to be treated at length).

Anywho.  I was framing the picture in the viewer of my discrete digital camera and a little, tiny corner of an old leather jacket was in the picture.  I waited a minute or so and then politely asked the man wearing the leather jacket if he could move over for a second while I snapped a photo.  Well.  He looked at me (down at me – I’m a mere five foot tall), his face of an equine sort, his bad teeth showing as his mouth dropped open, and didn’t say anything for a few seconds.  I thought maybe he hadn’t understood my request, so I repeated myself, this time in English.  That’s when I got the snub of a lifetime (in a British accent, no less):  “I come to museums to look at paintings, not to take pictures.  What do you come here for?”  Well, the Goddess of Repartee was with me that day (normally good comebacks materialize a few days later while I’m knitting or sitting on the pot):  “I come to museums to take pictures, but I like to buy stuff too.”  He snorted at me, spun on his heels, and trotted off.

This brings me to a subject that I’ve been pondering all year while visiting museums:  to shoot or not to shoot.  Susan Sontag in her book On Photography discusses the role it plays in tourism and vacations:  people in today’s mundus imaginum (I did that just to sound impressive – it simply means world of images) have come to depend on photos to validate experience.  A young woman I interviewed from Berck-sur-Mer told me a joke the other day that I’m sure Sontag would have enjoyed:  a friend asks a friend how his trip was, to which he replies:  “I don’t know, I haven’t developed the pictures yet.”

Those who take pictures in museums often do it for just this reason:  to prove that they saw the painting (this is especially true when the person poses with the painting as they would with a friend or family member).  Taking a photo of the painting, “shooting” it (Sontag discusses the semantic reverberations of “to take” and “to shoot” in her book) means to capture it, to consume it; the photo serves as a talisman representing the visitor’s taste and his journey through the museum.

Taking pictures of paintings can also reduce one’s own experience with painting.  The camera is the thing looking at the painting, not the person.  The person focuses on mechanical issues:  framing, turning off the flash (if he follows the rules), and holding his hand still, so that the camera makes a good reproduction of what is right in front of him.  It is as if I were to take a friend to a restaurant, watch him eat a good meal, and then ask, How was it?

For to experience a painting is different from looking at its reproduction.  Walter Benjamin speaks of the real deal as having an aura:  just as radium emits radiation, a painting emanates the effort and presence of the painter which comes out of the painting to greet us as we stand before it.  Taking a picture of an image is a one-sided experience.  Looking at a painting without the mediation of the camera is a two-sided one; we enter into a dialogue with it.  In his book The Open Image French art critic and historian George Didi-Huberman speaks of images as if they were organic objects:  “Images embrace us:  they open up to us and close themselves to us in so far as they conjure up in us something that we could call an interior experience.”  If we open up to the image, without protection or the desire to possess it, the image will reciprocally open itself up to us.

I sound as if I agree with Mr. Horse Snob (Equi-Snobus), don’t I?   Well, that’s just it.  I did agree with him at the start of the year, but after spending time talking to people in museums about why they take pictures of paintings I have come to realize that there are some excellent reasons.  It’s easy to go to museums with preconceived notions about how people really don’t take the time to look at paintings (such notions flatter one’s own sense of cultural superiority); it’s much more interesting to talk to people and learn that museums are in fact filled with people for whom art resonates quietly (or loudly) in their lives and that taking a picture of a painting doesn’t necessarily mean that a museum experience is qualitatively any less for them than it is for someone who shuns the camera.

Here are some interesting examples I’ve encountered this year about how the camera aids people’s experience at museums:  Kamilah from California keeps a portfolio of paintings on her computer that have moved her and writes about her experiences,  a man I spoke to takes a picture of a painting only when he finds one that particularly speaks to him and doesn’t know the painter well; he takes a picture of the painting along with the identification plate so he can further research the artist and the painting later.  At the Louvre a few days ago a young Russian pianist living in Paris and I talked at length about Watteau’s painting Pierrot, dit autrefois Gilles. She was so thrilled to have discussed the painting with someone that she wanted me to take her picture with the painting as a visual memory of our encounter (besides, her red hair matched the wall behind the painting to a tee).  Finally, I’ve come up with my own use of photographed paintings in museums:  as desktop pictures.  I take just part of the painting (for instance, an up-close Courbet’s signature from L’Hallili du cerf or part of the allegorical painting The Funeral of Love by Antoine Caron where one of the cupids looks at the observer – he alone does this – as if to say can you believe this painting?!).  My favorite (and the one currently on my computer) is an up-close of Gilles, slightly off-center:  his face, quiet and almost blank, reveals a different emotion, whispers a different story, every time I turn on my machine.

I would like to thank Michel Colson, a museum man if there ever was one, for allowing me to use his wonderful drawing La foule et la Joconde at the beginning of this post.  Michel spends three or four days at the Louvre, drawing his observations, copying works, and talking to people.  We spent nearly two hours together as he led me through the museum, sharing with me his favorite paintings.

Referenced works:  On Photography by Susan Sontag and L’image ouverte by George Didi-Huberman (not yet translated, the quote in the post is my translation).  If you are interested in Watteau I highly recommend Watteau and the Cultural Politics of Eighteenth-Century France by Julie Anne Plax.  Being a 19th century specialist, I knew que dalle (damn near nothing) about 18th century art and this book helped me to delight in the world of Watteau while in Paris.