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I grew up with H.W. Janson’s History of Art, first in art history class in college, and later, when I used it as a text when I taught art history. When I first owned a copy, it had only a few color plates, and later editions turned all-color, also adding some female artists and a bit of non-Western art in response to complaints it was too white-male-ish. It was. 

But that is not my point here. Rather it is that so many of us, including me, both as student and as teacher, know art primarily through reproduction. Either pictures in a book or slides projected in class — and now as digital images on computer screens. 

So, although I know Las Meninas, Rembrandt’s Danaë, or Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, I’ve never actually seen them. Not in person. 

(Judging from this photo, it’s possible even to visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and still not see Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. How many times have you seen museum visitors staring at the blue light of their cellphone instead of at the work on the walls?)

As a result, we are so much more art literate — or at least image literate — than was possible a hundred years ago, or two hundred years  when privileged young men would take the Grand Tour through Italy and the Continent to study the great masterpieces in museums and churches, and come home and write encomia on the glories they had seen. 

But we are also fooled into believing that we have seen these famous paintings by encountering them on a page. Learning their titles to recognize them on a test makes your Janson into a high-culture Peterson Guide. Name the birds, name the paintings. 

The real thing is quite a different experience. 

Take for a single example Théodore Géricault’s famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa, with its careful triangular composition of decomposing bodies and starving survivors. In class, we study the iconography of the painting, but can have little concept of the impact of seeing the original, which is frankly, the size of a barn. 

It hangs in the Louvre and it isn’t just the immensity of the thing that cannot be felt in a picture book, but the shear weight of canvas and paint which sags ever so slightly under its own mass. It isn’t a perfectly flat canvas: You have to accept it as an object in its own right, not merely an image. 

Quite the opposite confronts anyone who can make it to the front of the throng perpetually standing in front of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, like groupies vying for the front row at a rock concert. “It’s so much smaller than I thought,” is the most frequent response. 

And it isn’t just size that matters. How many have seen Vincent Van Gogh’s Crows in a Wheatfield either in an art book or as the dramatic climax of the Kirk Douglas film Lust for Life? How many have seen the actual painting? 

If you have been so lucky, you will know not only the size of the canvas, but also the almost sculptural surface of it, daubed with palette knife and oils. Van Gogh’s paintings are again, not merely images, but objects in their own right. 

In addition, the colors of printer’s inks are not the colors of the oil paint. You can never get quite the arsenic green that makes up the background of one of his self-portraits. Not in ink, and not in pixels. Just Google one of the paintings and look at the multiple versions posted online and notice how much color and contrast vary. 

What you are left with is the iconography. A real appreciation of the art is always more than iconography. Iconography is intellectual — you can describe it in words. This is the Virgin Mary, or that is the Battle of Waterloo. But identifying the subject is not seeing the painting. A painting is also a sense experience and looking at an actual painting, in museum or gallery, gives you so much more than its content. 

The same is true of the other arts. I have (I blush when I say it) thousands of CDs of music and can identify compositions — as if it were a contest — in a few notes, a classical music Name That Tune. (I remember astonishing my brother-in-law by spotting the Bartok Fifth Quartet in three notes — and they are all the same note. But boy, are they distinctive.) 

Denk and Brahms

But knowing the tunes is not the same experience as hearing the music played by Yo-Yo Ma live, or the Guarneri Quartet, or Jeremy Denk. This was brought home to me fundamentally (i.e., through my fundament) when I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch play Strauss’s Don Juan and the famous horn call was broadcast to the hall by eight French horns in unison. The effect cannot be captured by the best recording and the most audiophile equipment. You have to hear it live. The hall is live with the music. 

Certainly not every performance is so transcendent. Often you really do only get the tunes, and sometimes, that is enough for a pleasant evening. But I can honestly say that in a lifetime of concert-going, I have heard scores, maybe a hundred concerts where the music became a living thing on the stage and transported me to places no other art form can take me. 

The same for ballet and dance. I have never seen on film or video a dance performance that didn’t seem a pale reflection of what I see live on stage. Even the great Balanchine, when asked to record some of his most famous choreographies, had to redo them slightly to make them camera-friendly. Even then, they don’t come close to seeing Apollo live, or The Prodigal Son, or Rubies. Dance has to be seen live, in three dimensions, palpable and present. 

And I have seen stage plays recorded for TV. Stage acting seems so artificial when replayed on tape. Stage acting is not naturalistic acting: It is projecting the meaning to the back rows. Seen a stage production on the screen makes you long for a cinematic version. But a great performance of a great play seen live will disabuse you of any notion that live theater is lesser than film. 

I have seen Tony Kushner’s Angels in America four times complete, first in the original Broadway production, then in the roadshow version, then is a locally produced performance by the late lamented Actors Theatre in Phoenix, Ariz., and finally in the filmed version with Al Pacino. As good as that last was — and it is worth seeing if you haven’t seen it on stage yet — it pales in comparison with the original. Indeed, the original is what finally persuaded me that live theater offers something nothing else can. It is live. You can sometimes feel the pulse of the actors on stage, their sweat, their muscles flexing like dancers’. 

I pity anyone who has only seen dinner theater or a mediocre student performance, thinking that is what theater is about. Seeing a great production is life changing. 

Yet, so much of our lives now is virtual, and we hardly mind the difference. We even watch movies on our cell phones, which only puts me in mind of when I was a boy, watching great movies on a 12-inch TV, in black and white, all fuzzy in picture and tinny in sound, and thinking I was “seeing” the film. In those pre-HD days, we used to say television was radio with pictures. You could take in a program while doing chores, as long as you could hear the dialog, you could follow the plot. Movies are meant to be seen, the visual details are meant to contribute the the experience. They cannot on a cellphone. We are back to square one. 


I remember visiting the Virginia Beach Marine Science Center aquarium and enjoying the otters playing behind a great picture window. A slew of schoolkids came in on a bus tour and they immediately swarmed — not to the window to watch the otters — but to the video display showing live footage from the very tank they could look at in front of them. They chose, to a child, to look at the video instead. It was seriously depressing. 

And it is what I think of when I reopen my worn copy of Janson and look at the reproduction of the Disembarkation of Marie De Medici at Marseilles by Peter Paul Rubens, tiny on the page, and think of the room in which it sits at the Louvre. The painting is more than 12 feet tall and surrounded by 23 other giant paintings in a room dedicated to the series. The effect is quite overwhelming. On the page, it is a confused clump of busy mythology; on the wall, it will blow you away. 

I feel sorry of any poor student taking an art history class who thinks they have encountered the world’s great art, when all they have seen is ghosts of the living beings. 

Click on any image to enlarge

 

Orangerie Paris

What is culture, and why should we care?

These are questions that don’t get asked often enough when we discuss such inflammatory issues as government funding of the arts and humanities.

To many people, culture simply means a lot of wealthy people going to the opera and sitting through a hare-brained story in a language they don’t understand while listening to a soprano shriek so loud their elbows go numb.

Or it means drinking bad white wine from a plastic champagne glass at an art gallery opening or long, dense scholarly papers deconstructing Little Red Riding Hood as a text about the patriarchal hegemony.

We too often talk about culture as if it meant only evenings in the theater and long Russian novels.

But what would happen if all these so-called ”high” arts suddenly disappeared? Do we actually need them?

To understand the answer, we need to understand what culture is. Culture is broader than just the arts.

It’s what you eat for breakfast and whether your trousers have cuffs. It is who you are allowed to marry and what happens to your body when you die.

Culture is the set of rules — mostly in the form of traditions — by which society runs.

It is the software for our social lives.

In fact, far from being a luxury, culture is something you cannot live without. It is religion, art, laws, ethics, history and even our clothing.

Culture is who we are.

And who we are at this moment: No culture is static. It is an evolving thing — to keep up with the computer metaphor, there are constant upgrades. Culture 2.7 gives way to Culture 3.0, as the circumstances of our lives and our cultural needs change. The culture of the clipper ship means little on a jumbo jet.

Yet, although culture changes, it is inherently conservative. It changes very slowly. Nobody wants to get caught with a beta version of untested software.

Patterns from our ancestors persist in our lives. We enter the jumbo jet from the left side because our great-grandfathers wore their swords on their left sides and consequently mounted their horses from the left, to avoid entangling their swords.

You can see the history of aviation change from the stirrup on the left side of a World War I biplane to the door on a 747.

And how many children today play with ”choo-choo trains,” although not even their parents ever lived in a world with steam locomotives?

The patterns stick with us even when they no longer make sense.

But culture does change. The three-minute song remains the cultural pattern, although Dinah Shore has given way to Taylor Swift.

Songs from our agricultural past, lauding springtime and the moon, make little sense to our urban present, where nocturnal lighting is more likely neon. So we change. Slowly.

And where does cultural change come from? More often than not, from the arts.

The arts try out possible ideas onstage to see if they might make sense. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But the best minds and imaginations give it their best.

That is why we think of theater as ”culture.” Or literature, or painting.

Yes, there are some people who want to keep their old software version, and some who want to return to earlier versions. But culture cannot stand still.

Therefore, we need to be on the lookout for meaningful directions to go in. Art is our investigation of our values, testing them and throwing out some and reinforcing others.

Without art, culture ossifies and the people become emotionally and spiritually dead. So, if we mean to maintain a vital culture, we must support the best in the arts.

There is another computer saying: GIGO — garbage in, garbage out. In other words, if we don’t care for the changes in our culture, we are likely to wind up with the lowest common denominator. We are likely to wind up with nothing more than Duck Dynasty and microwave pizza.

bball trio

Basketball, when truly appreciated, is not merely a knock-down, drag-out testosterone-drenched form of male competition. It can also be a thing of beauty, a form of ballet that even tough guys can appreciate. 

Looking from one direction, no one who has watched ballet in rehearsal, with its sweat and grunting, with the sound of feet thudding on the wooden floor, can doubt ballet is as much athletic achievement as art. 

But from the other direction, neither should we be blind to the aesthetics of the NBA. At its best, the game gives us grace and transcendence. swan lake bball

One thinks of Michael Jordan, performing a grand jete, hanging in the air like a Japanese lantern, light as a skein of silk, delighting the crowd, connoisseurs of the art who can recognize a master when they see one. 

It’s like Baryshnikov: virility and grace combined. bball ballet arms

I’m not thinking of the goofy, arts-as-camp beginning of West Side Story, where the Sharks and Jets finger-snap their choreographed way through a bout of playground B-ball. A real fan would gag. 

No, I mean the muscled, sinewed power under complete control of an Elgin Baylor. 

Elgin Baylor

Elgin Baylor

Dance, after all, is nothing but graceful, controlled movement. A Baryshnikov could spin in the air and hit the floor with no noticeable impact and swoop into a demi-plie as if he had no weight at all. Every move contributed to the total effect of animal muscle tuned to the hum of an angel’s song. 

Connie Hawkins, for example. Like Nijinsky, he could hang in the air for what seemed like forever, but in reality was only seven minutes. Hawkins could, while in the air, switch the ball from one hand to the other five times before shooting. 

Connie Hawkins

Connie Hawkins

I came to Roundball in the 1970s and ’80s, listening to the Boston Celtics on radio with Johnny Most and his gravel voice play-by-play. And it was then that the issue of grace was first brought to my attention. My college friend who came to school on a basketball scholarship, approached the game esthetically, he said, and was put off by the win-at-all-cost jock attitude. Needless to say, he didn’t last long on the team. But he taught me the esthetics. 

He was enormously talented, and when we played Horse in the back yard, we had to have a singular variation to the game: I played Pig and at the same time, he played Archaeopteryx. He still won every time.  

Not every NBA player is a Baryshnikov, of course. Only a choice few stand out as danseurs nobles. 

The league has also had its share of Billy Paultzes and Manute Bols, the ungainly klutzes who have performed their tasks with spastic awkwardness. 

Billy ”The Whopper” Paultz, for instance, was one of the original wide bodies. He was there for rebounds, not shooting. When he did take a jump shot, his heels never broke contact with the floor. He had negative hang time. 

Or Jack Sikma, who was ”robo-center.” Although a fine player for Seattle, he moved mechanically. You could almost hear the gears whirring when he turned for his jumper. That’s not ballet. 

But that’s the esthetic bottom end. In between are the journeymen, who fill the lineups and can rise to the occasion in a good game and produce a memorable show. 

Wes Unseld

Wes Unseld

 

Unfortunately, it seems as if the NBA these days no longer values the esthetic side of the game. The heyday of the leaping danseur was the ’70s and ’80s. The best games then seemed more like aerial warfare than infantry slogging it out in the trenches. 

Jordan was the last — and greatest — of a generation of gazelles that began with Baylor, continued through Hawkins and reached critical mass with Dr. J. 

Since Jordan retired, the game seems headed toward a more earthbound and elbow-swinging muscle game. Hang time gives way to bang time. Intimidation counts more than style: Shaquille O’Neal wasn’t so much a leaper as he was a Sherman tank. 

Nowadays, I have a harder time keeping interest in the NBA. 

Critics of the game complain about what they call ”thugball,” but it’s always been part of the game, too. It’s just that too often these days, it seems to be all of the game. 

Jamaal Wilkes

Jamaal Wilkes

But even that aspect of the game has its art. One recalls Wes Unseld in his prime with the Bullets, built like a tree stump, immovable under the opponents’ basket, daring leapers to bounce off him. There was nobility in that. Like a sturdy Nureyev providing a rock-solid pedestal for the pinioned Margot Fonteyn. 

Yet, it is still Jordan whom one remembers most, or Magic Johnson, or Jamaal Wilkes, who never seemed to break a sweat while performing the most amazing acrobatics. His nickname, Silk, said it perfectly.