Opening presence

The first time I ever saw Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, it was in my art history textbook — the infamous Janson. It was about 5 inches wide on the bottom of page 633. 

Most of the world’s most famous art I first contacted in reproduction; it is the same for most people. It would be hard to travel the world’s great museums to see all the Vermeers, Rembrandts, Titians or Chardins. Instead, we see reproductions in books, or on the computer screen. I’ve seen hundreds, probably thousands of paintings in reproductions before I ever saw the real things. 

So, imagine my amazement when I encountered the real thing at the Louvre in Paris. There it was, the size of a barn. It was a lesson — if I really needed one — teaching me that a picture of a picture is not the same thing as a picture. But so much of what we imbibe of culture comes not in its original form, but as reproduction, whether it is Canaletto in art history class, or Beethoven on a disc. 

One of the things that divides the world I grew up in from the world I live in now is the unconsidered acceptance of a media experience for the live reality. We all have our noses in our screens. In many ways, what was once the secondary simulacrum of a genuine experience has become the end product itself. Since the days of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a great deal of music simply cannot be performed live; the recording is the original. 

In our Postmodern world, suffused with media, many an artist and musician has taken the secondary product as the original. And so, images are designed to be seen on the computer screen. No one asks to see a TikTok video in a movie theater; that would be silly. Content viewed on an iPhone is not an imitation of something else. 

I, myself, now take photographs specifically to be viewed on screen rather than printed out. I edit them differently, I frame them differently. It is a different esthetic. But aside from work made for the virtual world, there is still the palpable object to take into account. 

But the fact is, that many more people listen to recordings than attend concerts; see paintings in book reproductions or on computer screens than visit galleries or museums; prefer audiobooks to sitting in a chair and quietly turning paper pages. It gives a false impression of the art. 

We keep stepping back from an original and choose a Xerox copy. 

I am not here arguing against digital devices — you are reading this blog on one, so where would I be without such devices? — but I am worried that the ubiquity of reproduced media makes us forget that there can be something more immediate, and that through most of history, that immediacy was the primary mode of experiencing art and music. 

My brother and I were once talking about theater. He stated that he didn’t much care for live theater but preferred movies as being so much more realistic — despite the obvious fact that live actors are very real and that celluloid images are only simulacra, and that movies are cut and edited all over the place, while live action must take place in real time. 

But I recognized his point, and when I was younger, I would have agreed with him. Most of us are only subject to live theater, if we are exposed to it at all, in uninspired productions with bad or mediocre acting — the community theater or dinner theater sort of thing. And undistinguished theater is admittedly tedious. 

Most of the theater I had been exposed to was just that sort of thing. Sometimes quite entertaining, but always so darned “theatrical,” i.e. phony. 

Then, in 1994, I got to see the original Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, both parts over two days. It was the most riveting, even mind-blowing thing I had ever seen. And what was so moving was that it was there, live in front of me. They were real people doing and saying those lines and feeling — or evoking — those very primal emotions. It is still the single greatest experience I ever had in an audience. 

I have now seen the two-play cycle four times and each time it has grabbed me by the lapels and yelled into my face in a way that has left me shaken. I’ve seen the Mike Nichols film version, with Al Pacino, and it is a wonderful production, but it cannot move me with quite the same seismic force that the live version had. If I had seen those same actors in the theater instead of on the TV screen, I’m certain it would have been earthshaking, but the remove of the screen gives the whole thing a distance that the live actors don’t suffer from. 

I since have become an advocate for live theater, though it is hard to convince anyone who has not had the experience of great live performances. I have seen really good professional performances since Angels, and they have something nothing else has. Whether it is Fences by August Wilson, or Amadeus by Peter Shaffer or Hamlet performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, I am completely drawn in, with the same complete concentration one has when reading a great book — the day-to-day world disappears and the esthetic world takes over. 

(Amadeus, by the way, as a play is very different from Amadeus the movie. As wonderful as the film was, a good production of the play is so much more devastating.)

It isn’t only plays that have to be seen live. I have watched a good deal of dance on video or on PBS, and I am always disappointed at some deep level. Ballet and dance theater is the art form that speaks to my inner being the most directly and I love dance profoundly. But only live dance will do it. Balanchine knew this and attempted to re-choreograph a few of his masterpieces especially for video and however beautiful his video versions are, they pale beside seeing them live. You have to see the living, breathing (huffing and puffing), muscle-twisting movement in three dimensions for it to register fully. 

(Mediocre dance, like mediocre theater is the worst ambassador for the artform — how many people have been turned off by watching the local civic ballet company galumph through the annual Nutcracker? That is no more the real thing than little league pitching is like Bob Gibson or Sandy Koufax.)

I have well over a thousand CDs on the shelves in my office and listen daily to recordings of Brahms, Bartok, Weill, Mahler and Glazunov. And I don’t know where I’d be without them. But I also know that the real thrills I have had with classical music have been in the concert or recital hall, listening to live music. It has a presence that the recording cannot duplicate. I’ve written before about hearing the eight horns in Strauss’s Don Juan peel off the great horn call and feeling the sound through my chest and my fundament as much as through my ears. 

I want to make the same case for visual art. Everyone knows what the Mona Lisa looks like. Or do they? Almost to a person, those who have seen the original has remarked how small the painting is. It is a very different thing from the same image on a coffee mug or even in an art book. 

But it’s not merely size I mean. The colors cannot be precisely conveyed by printer’s ink or by a computer’s palette. The paint has a texture that isn’t conveyed, and varying levels of gloss or matte. This was brought home to me — very like the revelation of Angels — when I saw a collection of Cezanne still lifes at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. I had not imagined such an exquisite range of greens; way too many variants than can be named. The Cezannes in my Janson were dull and lifeless in comparison. Yes, I could name the subject in them — an apple here, a vase there — but apple and vase were not what the painting was about. This rich range of visual information was the real subject. Gone in the reproduction. The real paintings made me want to chew the colors like a great meal. 

We are led to accept imagery as the purpose of art, but it is only one portion of it. Alone, it is hardly more than the male or female silhouette on a restroom door. It also must include the scale, the finer shades of color and texture — and as with theater — the “presence.” The fact. Van Gogh’s Starry Night is everywhere from lampshades to mouse pads, but if you stand before it at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, you absorb how complex the painting is. Not just a swirl of blue night sky, but an object, a painting made of pigments and oils. 

The same with the huge paintings of Maria Medici by Rubens, or the meticulous brushstrokes of Robert Campin’s Mérode Alterpiece at the Cloisters in New York. 

But, I hear someone say, you should not let the best be the enemy of the good. As Chaucer said, “Muche wele stant in litel besynesse.” And many of us cannot visit the Louvre or the Prado, or get tickets to the New York City Ballet. Does everything have to be great?

I am not arguing that. I am saying that we should not be bamboozled into thinking that a reproduction can stand in for the genuine and that the real thing can be a life-changing experience, causing you to discover depths in yourself you hadn’t even suspected, whether it is the sympathetic feel of your muscles watching a dancer, or the empathy you extend to Salieri in Amadeus, or the hunger for color you get from Cezanne. 

I am arguing that, in fact, you should look at real paintings and sculpture. Not all of it will be great, but it will be real. It will be present. There is plenty of local art in every town and city. If there is no museum, there may be some Depression-era murals in your post office, or a World War I soldier in your town square. There are local artists working in your neck of the woods, and what they do is real, not virtual. 

Every locale has artists working, and art worth experiencing isn’t only found in museums, or only found in New York or Berlin. 

I remember pulling into a supermarket in Boone, N.C. one fall afternoon and hearing three or four local musicians plucking guitar and banjo on the front steps, gathered informally to play some tunes. It was genuine and I sat and listened with the small crowd for 20 minutes or so before going in for my butter and eggs. 

You never know what you’re going to get. Even the best performer can have an off night, and sometimes an amateur can hit the spot. It isn’t frogs you have to kiss, but you do need to weed through a good deal of acceptable but unexceptional work to find those few that will stick with you for life. 

And then you will know the immediacy of the real. 

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