People approach the arts generally in one of two ways: with taste and judgment or with curiosity.
You can spot the first group by the arch of their eyebrow, the second group by the gleam in their eye.
The first group includes a good number of academics, critics and — worse — politicians. They all suck the life out of creation (with a lower-case “c”). I speak as a lifelong critic myself. In all three cases, they have criteria outside the issues of art by which they judge the art.
The academic asks whether the art promotes his particular hobby horse, whether it is Marxism, Feminism or Post-structuralism. The politician looks to issues of biblical morality or economic theory or national pride. The critic, too, has his narrows and straits.
They all have ideals — or limitations — they ask the art to live up to and tend to filter out divergent opinions and make moral judgments, not merely aesthetic ones, against those who failed to live up to their standards.
They ran the gamut from the most enlightened connoisseurship to the most craven bigotry.
But each came to a final and immovable resting place, so to speak. They came to a certainty from a certainty. Not much of a voyage.
Curiosity is the libido of art and it is always searching and always finding new pleasures, deeper enlightenment. It begins not with certainty and knowledge, but with openness and ignorance.
There is this one simple truth that we cannot escape: What you know prevents learning. It is only when we give up believing in our knowingness that we can grow. There is nothing so stunted as theory; it is the brain wearing a whalebone corset.
And curiosity is where all the greatest artists have begun. It is also where any art lover needs to start: Judgment is for the censorious; art aims for the unprogrammed curiosity.
Obviously, I have stacked the deck in curiosity’s favor, but that is only as it should be.
The greatest artists have always been open to the world. Rembrandt had his Orientalism, Hokusai his Occidentalism. Leonardo had the most promiscuous curiosity in the history of our culture.
For me, these are the heroes of art.
And I think of them every time the issue of multiculturalism comes up. The concept seems simple and desirable to me, but it is a bugaboo for those who have wished to see culture ossified at a certain time and place, usually late 19th century and Europe.
I am not one to knock European art. I fall in rapture over Beethoven’s late quartets, Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Goethe’s Faust. But I also hunger to know as much as I can about the music of India, China, South America, Africa. I want to hear Ali Akhbar Khan on sarod, the clang of a Javanese gamelan. I want to see sumi paintings of Sesshu, the stonework of Macchu Picchu.
Shakespeare is a prodigy, but I also want to see Noh plays, Shakuntala and Chinese opera.
They all have something for me to experience and something to teach me.
And they have something to teach the finest artists working today, a fact the finest artists are fully aware of. All the best artists borrow and steal from elsewhere, whether it’s Papa Haydn borrowing Alsatian folksongs or Pablo Picasso ripping off African masks.
But there are critics who decry Philip Glass for the Hindu in his minimalism or the Asiatic spectacle of Robert Wilson’s stagings.
But these are the people who are revivifying our high culture, just as Paul Simon and David Byrne, musical thieving magpies, are doing for our popular culture.
And artists have always been awake to these cultural borrowings, as Gauguin borrowed from the South Seas, Bartok borrowed from Hungarian folk music, as Shakespeare borrowed from anything he thought would be useful.
Everything, from top to bottom, is grist for fine art.
I know there is a politically correct aspect of multiculturalism that is ignorance incarnate: the enforced belief that anything from another culture is wonderful and we shouldn’t say anything bad about it. But that is a political consideration, not an aesthetic one.
I’m all for saying bad things about bad art, wherever it comes from, but let’s see and hear it first. Hold judgment in abeyance and just soak it all in.
There is not a culture anywhere on this planet that has nothing to teach us. We should never be so smug.
The critics and connoisseurs are concerned about being right. But much more important is maintaining a lively mind. What is correct and proper in any age is very likely to change over time. Such are not the “eternal verities” that their proponents like to think they are; they are mere fashion.
But a lively mind, whether it is in Third Century China, 18th Century France or 21st Century Brazil, will always be the medium of exchange for thinking, feeling people.
Remember when tomatoes were considered poison? If the reactionaries had had their way, we would not now have pizza. I rest my case.