How We Look At Art

the storm.jpg

For obvious reasons, I found Michael Kimmelman's piece in The Times, this morning, very interesting. Kimmelman is concerned that people are happy to look at photos of great art, but not very interested in sitting with the work itself:

Almost nobody, over the course of that hour or two, paused before any object for as long as a full minute. Only a 17th-century wood sculpture of a copulating couple, from San Cristobal in the Solomon Islands, placed near an exit, caused several tourists to point, smile and snap a photo, but without really breaking stride.

Visiting museums has always been about self-improvement. Partly we seem to go to them to find something we already recognize, something that gives us our bearings: think of the scrum of tourists invariably gathered around the Mona Lisa. At one time a highly educated Westerner read perhaps 100 books, all of them closely. Today we read hundreds of books, or maybe none, but rarely any with the same intensity. Travelers who took the Grand Tour across Europe during the 18th century spent months and years learning languages, meeting politicians, philosophers and artists and bore sketchbooks in which to draw and paint -- to record their memories and help them see better.

Cameras replaced sketching by the last century; convenience trumped engagement, the viewfinder afforded emotional distance and many people no longer felt the same urgency to look. It became possible to imagine that because a reproduction of an image was safely squirreled away in a camera or cell phone, or because it was eternally available on the Web, dawdling before an original was a waste of time, especially with so much ground to cover.

There's a lot here I agree with, and a lot that I don't know about. I can really relate to the self-improvement part. Again, these recent museum visits have been religious for me. But I'm less disturbed by the idea of us losing something due to the proliferation of photography. I can't speak for everyone, but the web, a photo, or a post-card simply can't replicate the feel of an original painting.

More than that it can't replicate the majesty of seeing that painting at home in a gallery, and as part of a broader family of other painting. My experience is limited here, but what I love is how the pieces at the Met come together to tell a broader story--not so much a narrative, but a story. I don't want to see Cot's "The Storm" (pictured above) alone. I want to see it as part of a tradition, a lineage, a bigger thing. But that's my feeling. I'm not sure it has to be everyone's

This isn't so much a critique of Kimmelman, but I'm always skeptical of nostalgia--even if I fall victim to it myself, at times. I think we spend too much time hand-wringing about the present, as opposed to adjusting to it. I come to what is classic fromĀ  all the art of the now--Chris Claremont, Raekwon, Randall Cunningham and Double Dragon. They've helped shape my sense of what is beautiful--but they don't limit it.

I imagine that it's true that there are those who are simply happy with a post-card. If ever it were different, I think that this says more about man's options, than his essential nature. Moreover, I think the older I get (and really in the last year or so) the less I care about "man" in that generalized sense. It's not out of callousness, but out of an inability to know where anything is going. I think--though I do not know--that maybe art touches who it's supposed to touch. Everyone won't see it as deeply as everyone else--whatever we take that to mean. Maybe they aren't even supposed to.