Monday, September 5, 2011

Making Lovers of Friends

A friend asked what my blog's about. When I told him that it's about art, "I don't think I'll be looking into it,” he said. “Now, if it were about sports or politics—something like that—I probably would." Wishing not to dismiss me, though, he added, "I have some posters in frames at home. Just things I like, you know."

I do know. I appreciated the lack of defensiveness in our exchange. I’m used to being told, 
“I-don't-know-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like” by an interlocutor who expects, “Let-me-improve-you-with-Art” from me.

That my sports-minded friend takes only a limited interest in art should hardly cause him embarrassment. We live in a country where competition and conflict are bred in the bone and find expression in sports and politics. Our tolerance and attention last for timed periods. Face-offs yield the satisfaction of definitive results: a winning record and the championship; the Presidency; survival to fight an even more lethal opponent.

But art isn’t usually a fight. It may consider or incorporate processes from political, physical, mental or emotional conflicts—yet it rarely strives for decisions. Where does a work of art start? When does it end? What’s happening in the first place, and what side are we on? What are the rules, anyway?

To some like my friend, art must seem like a game with unequal rules, played by a team of insiders against isolated, individual outsiders. People uncomfortable with art may visit a museum to take a look, yet feel that to ask questions would be too great a risk of ego. Insiders—staff who label and promote shows; journalists who repeat the claims of press releases; and critics who write to inform the informed—often implicitly ignore viewers who haven’t already developed personal connections to the pleasures of art or to the ways art promotes insight and complex thinking.

In recent decades, cultural institutions have worked to welcome and educate people who don't arrive as established art lovers, seeking new members and friends from a much broader public. 

But will those new, adult friends of the museum become art lovers? Will a person who follows current affairs with ardor, or will a football fan find new love at the museum through enticements of free day, take-the-kids-day, or cocktails in the gallery? Will docent-led tours provide enough substance to kindle passion?

One thing is certain: People keep returning to what they love and want to be close to. Love is a powerful attraction, or what we devote our time to. No one falls in love with a generality or a proposition. A sports lover spends hours and hours watching games. He understands details and nuances; he calculates and compares. A sports lover observes all the changes, traditions, and complexities. For this person, sport is a universe of beloved particularities.

Art lovers aren’t people who like their cocktails under the pendant Chihuly sculpture, or who wander through the galleries en route to the shop; who speak professional jargon in public, or who lunch with their friends at the Art-y-teria. Art lovers fall in love with works of art in an intimate way they cannot with institutions, attitudes, or life styles.

We reviewers need to write from the margins of the art world if we are to encourage visitors and viewers to trust their independent experiences with art. First, our writing can suggest some habits of love. Art isn’t played—like sports or politics—between television commercials; it isn’t presented in sound bites or headshots. In general, art requires more sustained acts of concentration and patience than sports and politics. Usually, the conflicts and resolutions erupt from marks the artist leaves in the work to set off actions in your head. But they don’t occur in fifteen-minute intervals. Reviewers can demonstrate the pace of time in art.

Second, art reviews model the progress of passion from observations of a unique object through understanding the artwork's form and significance to insight into the artist’s motivation. For ultimately, we will love not merely the object, but how it came to be filled with significance.

When I was younger and discovering art, I thought that artists were apart, in an exalted world. I eventually learned that artists are inspired by other creative people and their work. But I also know that artists respond—like connoisseurs of Tiffany glass do, like hockey fans do, like I do—to everything else in their lives: childhood memories, dogs, civil rights, bad habits, sex, fairy tales, nature, death, farming, fetishes, purple, philosophy—and sometimes to baseball cards collected since 1950, or season tickets to the Celtics.

A reviewer can be a matchmaker, showing individual viewers the way to possibilities for real love. When I look long enough and searchingly enough to fall in love with a work of art, I find myself revealed or reflected back somewhere in the work—I see a Me redrawn with vigor and freshness by someone I hadn’t known I adore.

My friend with the posters discovered a fact about Aminah Robinson from my review of Gift of Love. It was just enough to inspire him to go see it. I am sure he will connect with that piece. And I could hope for nothing better than his passing my card to his buddies after the next home game and telling them, "This you've got to see." It would be good to see the love passed on down the line, through friends.

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