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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

 

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The writer was asked to speak to a creative writing class about what he does. He feels uncomfortable, because he does not much think about what he does; instead, he does it. For more than three decades, he’s been doing it.

But, because he was asked so nicely by the teacher of the class, he agreed to try to explain what he does. 

So, he gets up in front of the class of college-age students, each of whom probably intends to be the next Hemingway, or maybe the next Perez Hilton: It’s hard to know nowadays. 

He speaks:

I was flattered to be asked to speak to you, but I’m not really sure why you asked me, because I really don’t think that I am a very good writer. I am certainly a writer; I get paid for it. But, I’m certainly not a normal writer. I can name a dozen people at my newspaper, for instance, that I admire for being able to accept an assignment, do all the research and distill it into a readable and entertaining article.

I can’t do that, or at least not very well.

On the other hand, I must admit, I don’t find myself reading those stories all that often. I’m simply not that interested in what this week’s celebrity has to say about the vegan diet, or why red suspenders are making a comeback in men’s haberdashery. I’m proud to be a journalist, but I’m not really a journalist.

That could be said for a lot of people these days, especially those writing blogs online. Have you tried reading most of that stuff? It’s like trying to eat an old mattress. Indigestible, self-serving, and just outright bad writing. I don’t really care whether you like boiled eggs or not, and why do you think I care?

But in preparation for coming here, I did some thinking about what makes good writing. Or at least, what makes the kind of writing I want to read and the kind I attempt to do.

And the bottom line is this: What makes good writing is having something to say.

The world is full of “hired guns,” who can turn out PR with the surface lubricity of an eel. The world of journalism is full of such writing: Reporters gather their information, marshal it into rank and file and parade it past the reader in perfect order.

Such writing is found by the car load in the bottoms of parakeet cages.

And blogging has turned instead into public journal keeping, as if we needed to know your every movement. There are some great blogs out there (my favorite is “Think Denk” by pianist Jeremy Denk, who is about the best music writer out there. It is often comic, but it has substance, too. He says real things about the music). But the majority of blog writing is a waste of server space.

Writing that matters — and I cannot see why one would want to write otherwise — writing that matters happens when the writer has something to say, something he cares about, something he knows about.

And I don’t mean, knows about in the sense of having learned a few facts, but I mean knows about, the way you know how to ride a bicycle or the way you know how it feels when you’ve dug a garden: The feeling in the bone, under the muscle. That is knowledge. The population of the Detroit metro area is mere fact. The experience of living in Detroit is knowledge.

And then you must have the missionary zeal to want to broadcast this knowledge.

This needn’t be a soapbox that I’m talking about. Novelists of worth burn to tell us what it feels like to be alive.

But without the need to say something, you have journalism, you have blog-blather.

This is a problem not only in writing. I am an art critic by trade and I see it constantly in galleries: Someone has decided for whatever misguided reason that he or she wants to be an artist. So he learns how to make a painting and creates an art that looks just like art, feels just like art, but isn’t art, it is only the imitation of the way art looks.

The drive in such cases is not to say something but to be recognized as an artist, to be acknowledged as being a member of a certain job description. It is a bureaucratic ambition.

A child in the first grade, for instance, has no interest in being the next Picasso. The fame of art, the sex, the openings, the white wine — these simply aren’t why he makes art.

No, he has been given a bunny rabbit to hold and his eyes light up. The rabbit “kisses” his nose, he feels the fur under his fingers and he simply bursts with the need to express what he has experienced. You put paper and paint in front of him and he will find his “adequate means of expression.”

That phrase, from art education pioneer Viktor Lowenfeld, describes for me what good writing is.

Viktor Lowenfeld

Viktor Lowenfeld

You are burning to say something and you will find the best way possible to say it: its adequate means of expression.

The contrast is the writer who churns out news stories or magazine articles not because he has something to say, but because he thinks it would be neat to make a career out of being a writer.

That’s not to deny there can be a certain romance about being a writer. The exotic myth of downing gin with Hemingway or having sex with the jeunes filles of Paris with Henry Miller. “I admire such and such a person, so I want to be like him. He writes, so it must be cool.”

But Hemingway or Miller were not journalists. They wrote because they had something they were burning to say.

There is a related problem, which is the belief that writing is  somehow different from thinking, that writing is the clothing of thought. It is not, it is the thought itself.

Writing isn’t something applied to a subject, like peanut butter on a slice of bread. It is not how you express thinking: It is thinking.

One cannot think through a subject, come to a conclusion and then say, “Well, now, I guess I’ll write it down.”

No, the writing is how you find out what you think; it is how you come to a conclusion. It is also why you rewrite. If you don’t rewrite, you haven’t done your job: You always write and rewrite, think and rethink.

And again, style is not a fancy evening dress with sequins you put on before going to the dance: Style is that adequate means of expression and it flows naturally from your personality and your way of thinking.

Style is the sum total of your faults, is how Hemingway put it. It’s not your goal, it’s an accident you cannot prevent.

But today, more and more people, the result of years of reality TV and fashion magazines, believe style is the reason you’re in the business to begin with.

It is not. Style is the death of art, it is the death of writing.

You must be as direct as you can be, without distorting what you need to say.

If what you need to say is baroque, the style will naturally be baroque, also. If what you have to say is sophomoric, the style will follow suit.

There are things to look out for and chief among them is formula:

Journalism is full of formulas and many writers use nothing but. But good writing is always done fresh, from the ground up, each time. When you start doing formulas is when you know you are burned out and need a career change.

Each subject must generate its own form; it suggests what is important, what should be left out. There are writers who complain that  this is reinventing the wheel and my only answer is that it is vitally important that we do reinvent the wheel.

It is only when I invent the wheel for myself, and not borrow someone else’s wheel, that I understand the wheel.

To the extent that you use someone else’s words, or someone else’s form, to that extent, you don’t know what you are talking about.

And finally, I must say something about that old writers’ canard: Write what you know. I recall some great writer — I think it was John Updike — saying on the contrary: Write what you don’t know.

My synthesis of the two dicta is this: Write what you know about, but always on the level of what you don’t know. In other words: I write about art because I know something about art. But I try to write about art I don’t yet understand. Through writing about it, I come to understand it.

One should always work at the limits of your ability, at the edge of your knowledge. Writing only what you are thoroughly familiar with will make for academic writing. Writing only what you know nothing about at all will lead to saying really dumb things.

But take what you already know best and seek out the far corners of that universe and explore.

Then you will really have something to say.