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How did I ever become such a sobersides? An old fogey? So donnish?

My late wife used to call me “the man who can’t have fun.” But I do have fun. I have lots of it; it’s just that I get pleasure out of things most people find impenetrably dull. I find them incredibly fascinating. I watch C-Span Book TV on weekends, for instance. I read Homer and Dante, and listen to Paul Hindemith. I pine for ballet. And little makes me happier than digging into some arcane research. 

It goes way back to when I’m this kid, see. When my classmates were listening to Cousin Brucie on the AM radio and loving the Drifters or “Splish-splash, I was takin’ a bath,” I was spinning Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on the Sears Silvertone. 

In third grade, I enjoyed diagramming sentences. Why?

 These things come to mind because I recently came across an essay written by Artsy editor Casey Lesser about how seeing Guernica when she was 15 years old changed her life and set it on its course. I had an instant reaction to her piece because when I was about the same age, I also came across the painting. 

It was in the early 1960s and I was a high-school student in New Jersey. I took the bus to Manhattan as often as I could and practically lived in the city’s museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, where I became lifelong friends with Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Jackson Pollock’s Number 1A and, of course, the wall-spanning expanse of Picasso’s Guernica. 

Back then, when I would exit the elevator on the third floor of MoMA, the painting — more than 11 feet high and 25 feet wide — dominated the view to the right, on the far wall through two other galleries. It was on “permanent exhibition,” and I was confident it would always be there for me to see. Nothing is permanent in this life, and in 1981, the painting absconded to Spain. 

With its powerful and painful imagery, the painting was proof to my adolescent mind that there was a world more real and more meaningful than the suburban life I was stuck in. And like countless young “sensitive souls,” from Wilhelm Meister to Holden Caulfield, I urgently and earnestly yearned for something that cast a larger shadow on the screen. I was a little too conscious of being the hero of my own Bildungsroman. 

That early exposure to the art at MoMA, and especially Guernica, aimed me at my eventual career as an art critic. Parvis e glandibus quercus. Or, as Pope had it, “As the twig is bent, so the tree inclines.”

But this recognition also set me off to consider what other early exposures bent that twig. Of course, some of the most transformative influences were people: teachers, friends, and eventually, wives. But I am concerned here primarily with arts and books that yanked the steering wheel from my hand and sent me in new directions.

I was in high school and my new exposure to history, poetry, foreign languages, both Latin and Spanish, all kindled a growing sense that there was more to life than sitting in the living room watching Bonanza and eating Oreos. 

Many of us rebel as adolescents against the banality of our lives, and that of our parents’. Most of that rebellion is inchoate and poorly aimed, leading to teen drinking, minor car theft or simple sullenness. But in some few cases, such as mine, there was a clear alternative: For me, the life of the mind. 

Art and literature spoke of an existence that was not banal, but intense and meaningful. I began eating it up. 

For instance, theater. I had little experience of live theater until my freshman year in high school, when the class was bussed down to Princeton, N.J., to see Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the McCarter Theatre. It was the perfect introduction to the Bard; the story was clear and simple, so, while the language was baroque, we could still follow the play easily enough. 

McCarter Theatre Center

Then, the following fall, we went back to the McCarter to see O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. What crazed educator thought that a three-and-a-half hour play about a screwed up family in 1912 was a good one for high school sophomores, I don’t know. But it struck just the right note of high seriousness for my nascent psyche. I loved it. I wanted more. 

I’ve already written about my high school girlfriend, who became a professional musician, and how we used to make out on her couch while listening to Stravinsky on the phonograph. We went to countless concerts and recitals in New York and I came to love classical music. I bypassed the doo-wop: My Four Seasons were Vivaldi’s, not Frankie Valli’s. 

I took up reading contemporary literary fiction: Updike, Bellow, Pynchon. Two books especially hit the mark. I was bowled over by Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I sought epiphanies. It’s a book I still read again every few years. 

Then, I discovered Kazantzakis after watching the movie of Zorba the Greek, where I read the book and found in the novel a deeper level of Buddhist thinking, which sent me on to discover Zen via Alan Watts and poetry via Matsuo Basho. 

Each taste made me seek out more. Haiku eventually expanded into Paradise Lost — an inflation equivalent to the early seconds of the universe after the Big Bang. 

All this was heady stuff for a pimply-faced teenager, but even if only dimly understood at the time what I was reading and experiencing, I knew it was bigger and more important than my paper route or the Reader’s Digest. The desire for a richer, deeper, more profound life has been the driving force behind my inclination toward what used to be called high-brow culture.

There has been an ersatz distinction between high-brow and low-brow. But that distinction is characteristically middle-brow. There is a snobbery of the middle classes that seeks to distinguish itself from the uneducated tastes, and an aspirational striving for the status (and wealth) that seem to mark the upper classes. In this dynamic, there is an inherent self-loathing to the middle class, at least when it is self-aware. 

And no doubt my allegiance to fine art was originally spawned by this loathing of what seemed a mundane and insipid upbringing. Art told me there were more serious concerns in life, and bigger adventures. If I didn’t want to be squelched by the 9-to-5 life, hanged by the necktie and imprisoned by my own front lawn, then I would have to take on Bach, Joyce, Hokusai, Zora Neale Hurston, Laurence Sterne, Miles Davis, Correggio, Xenophon, and Philip Glass. Gobble them all up and look for even more with an incessant appetite. 

That was all a half-century ago. I have sucked up every bit of knowledge and wisdom I could find, only to discover that I knew less and less, and was more foolish than I ever knew possible. Now at 72, I no longer feel intolerant of the middle class that gave birth to me, but find it is the foundation of a society that allows me space to be an outlier. Only with the solid support of a functioning culture could I have found a means to leave it behind. Its tolerance allows me my eccentricity. I know I would have found none in Stalin’s Moscow nor Pol Pot’s Phnom Penh. 

So, I have been allowed to read what I want, see and hear what I want, and if that has led me away from the class that a-borned me, it has led me to a place where I find it hard to judge anyone. Not impossible, but difficult, knowing how little all my education and cultural exposure has taught me. Much information; little wisdom. 

But it has informed my life, made it richer, provided endless pleasure, occupied a mind that hated inactivity, and, as all great art and literature does, nurtured compassion and forgiveness, an awareness of others both locally and globally. It has been the key to let me step out of the prison of myself. 

I once wanted to change the world. Most of us did in the 1960s. We knew we could make it a better place. That has all collapsed. Now, my idealism is drained from me, my expectation for the future and future generations is quelled. I expect no better than life can serve up. There is no end, only perpetual churn and change. I cannot fix the world; it needs no fixing, it only needs accepting, faults and all. And my need for improvement turns in on myself. 

Someone once said in defense of our youthful enthusiasms that what is called maturity is made up of equal parts of cowardice and exhaustion. I once would have agreed. Exhaustion, maybe, but cowardice, no. Maturity is acceptance. “The wrastling for the world axeth a fal.” 

I still find myself bored by the simple and simple-minded, and find myself excited by the complex and the beautiful. And so, I read Tolstoy, listen to Bartok, examine the canvases of Titian and Francis Bacon, weep over the dance of Pina Bausch, and soak in the films of Tarkovsky. These may not be plebeian tastes, but they are my tastes. They satisfy. 

It is is not just the life of the mind, it is life to the mind. 

“Do not move. Let the wind speak.” 

May those I love try to forgive what I have made of it. 

On the surface, water lilies would seem to be an unpromising subject for painting. Except for their flowers, there is little color to them. Their shapes are mostly just repetitive ovals on the surface of the water. Unlike a rose or a tulip, there is little structure to be seen — a pad floating on the water, a bloom — usually plain white — in an open space here or there. 

But Claude Monet managed to turn them into an icon of both Impressionism and Modernism. The water lily is as identified with Monet as sunflowers are with Van Gogh or soup cans with Warhol. And since then, a gazillion artists after him have imitated his work. 

Like photographer Edward Weston and his peppers, no one before him thought it worth their attention; after him, hordes of artists and Sunday painters have taken their crack at it. An artist sees something nobody notices, and suddenly, everyone can see them. 

The problem is, very like Weston and his peppers, his epigones don’t merely see water lilies, but some reflection in their minds of having remembered Monet’s water lilies. The paintings reshape reality. 

In some ways, Monet actually made it harder to see the real water lilies. 

What is missed is that Monet wasn’t painting water lilies in his some 250 canvases on the subject. They are merely pretext. When he first began painting them, he wanted to paint what he saw. Monet was the great transcriber. As Cezanne said, “He is only an eye; but what an eye.” 

He could see nuance of color and was able to paint not what he knew but what activated his retina — that is, not a house or a peony, but whites, reds and blues, shaded from highlight to shadow. When put down on canvas, those hues and tones could be seen as a house or peony, but it was never the object itself that he attempted to capture, but the visual impression of them. 

“Perhaps my originality boils down to being a hypersensitive receptor,” he said, “and the expedience of a shorthand by means of which I project on a canvas, as if on a screen, impressions registered on my retina.”

But at some point as he turned into the grand old man of Impressionism, the outer world ceased to be of much importance and became merely the armature for his work, the reason for wiping across his canvas his flake white, vermilion, madder, cobalt blue and emerald green.

In a letter, he wrote, “The subject doesn’t matter!”

In the earlier work, there is usually a subject; in the later work, he developed a sort of “overall” design, almost like wallpaper. He prefigured the world of such later painters as Jackson Pollock. Indeed, it was really only after the Abstract Impressionists that common audiences could understand what was going on in Monet’s late water lilies. 

Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

They were, to paraphrase Pollock, not water lilies at all, they were paintings. 

The best and most memorable of them are the mural-size nymphéas. Any museum in the world worth its salt has one of these: MoMA, the Carnegie, Chicago, etc. They tend to be huge, wide, paintings, almost ribbons of paint stretched 10-, 15-, or 20-feet wide as grand Cinemascope wide-screen visions. And where, in the earlier paintings, the water lilies were often the foreground to a more conventional landscape, backgrounded with trees and a shoreline, the later ones eliminate the horizon and become sheets of color. 

Museum of Modern Art, NY

In those museums, a single Nymphéas (as he called them) could eat up an entire gallery wall. 

But the grandaddy of them all are the eight paintings mounted in two oval rooms of the Orangerie in Paris. If you lined them up end to end, they would be longer than a football field. The two rooms are end-to-end, making a floorplan in the shape of an “infinity” symbol. Along the longer sides, panels are some 42-feet long and 6-feet high, and the pointy end of the football shaped rooms, the paintings are 20-feet long. Between each pair of panels is an entrance. The ceiling is a kind of skylight, flooding the paintings with natural light. The walls are white. 

The whole is one of the wonders of the art world. Critic André Masson famously called the installation the “Sistine Chapel of Impressionism.” 

The whole thing came together because of time and place — a confluence of the World War and the room in which to hang the pictures. 


Even 30 years before the Orangerie finally opened, Monet had in mind the idea. “One imagines a circular room, the walls of which, above the baseboard, would be entirely filled by water dotted with these plants to the very horizon, walls of a transparency by turns toned green and mauve, the still water’s calm and the silence reflecting the opened blossoms; the tones are vague, lovingly nuanced, as delicate as a dream.” 

He was thinking primarily of a private patron decorating his home. 

Some years later, he was still mulling the project. In a 1905 article in the Gazette des Beaux Arts, he was quoted, “At one point I was visited by the temptation to use the theme of nymphéas for a decoration. Carried the length of the walls, enveloping the entire interior with its unity.”

Still, nothing came of the idea. It sat in the back of the painter’s mind for another decade. Then came the war. The Western Front and the trenches of World War 1 were as close as 35 miles from Monet’s home in Giverny. At times, he could hear the artillery fire. In 1914, his wife had recently died, and so had his elder son. The younger son and his step-son had joined the army. Monet was devastated and anxious. Many of the inhabitants of Giverny fled to safety but Monet remained: “If those savages must kill me, it will be in the middle of my canvases, in front of all my life’s work.” He saw, as an old man, his painting as his patriotic contribution.

{French filmmaker and playwright Sacha Guitry captured silent film of Monet painting in his garden in 1914.) 

At the end of the war, the painter formed an idea for a memorial, a gift to the nation commemorating both the victory and the loss of life. He proposed this to his longtime friend, now prime minister of France, Georges Clemenceau, two large panels, one of flowers to mark the victory and the other of weeping willows as a memorial to those who died. (Willows were a common symbol of mourning in the 19th century.) 

The day after the Armistice in 1918, Monet wrote to Clemenceau: “I am on the verge of finishing two decorative panels which I want to sign on Victory day, and am writing to ask you if they could be offered to the State with you acting as intermediary.”

The prime minister liked the idea, but suggested a larger series of a dozen panels. It grew to 19 panels at one point, before winding up with the eight we see today at the Orangerie. Monet fussed and painted, and fussed and destroyed paintings he was unsatisfied with, and fussed over where they might be displayed. Several venues came up and were dismissed, for various reasons. 

Ultimately, two rooms at the Orangerie at the far end of the Tuileries gardens in Paris, near the Place de la Concorde were chosen and prepared. It had been built in 1852 by Napoleon III as a place to house citrus trees.

 Unfortunately, Monet never got to see the paintings in place. He died  in December, 1926, and the water lilies at the Orangerie were opened to the public May 17, 1927. 

Orangerie

At the time, both Monet and Clemenceau were seen by the post-war generation as old-hat, a holdover from a previous century and for the next 40 years, they were occasionally walled over to allow the showing of newer art. But after the next great war and with the rise of Abstract Expressionism, Monet was recognized not so much as a holdover, but as a prophet of the coming abstraction.

Musee Marmottan, Paris

During his life, Monet was enormously popular and became rich — something very few artists, even great and now-famous artists failed to achieve — but his water lilies were not always understood. For a show of water lily paintings in 1909, one critic wrote: “One’s first reaction to these 48 pictures is bewilderment. In most of them, objections having little to do with painting are the cause of this malaise; they have to do more with the identity of the subject and the number of duplications and with the at first seemingly fragmentary aspect of these pictures. The paintings manifest an authority and independence, an egocentric quality that is offensive to our vanity and humbling to to our pride. M. Claude Monet is interested in pleasing only himself.”

Nelson Atkins Musuem, Texas

But at least one critic seems to have grasped something essential about the paintings. They are not designs carefully laid out inside a frame, with horizon lines and identifiable primary subjects. French critic Roger Marx noticed that same year, “The painter deliberately broke away from the teachings of Western tradition by not seeding pyramidal lines or a single point of focus. The nature of what is fixed, immutable, appears to him to contradict the very essence of fluidity; he wants attention diffused and scattered everywhere. He considers himself free to place the small gardens of his archipelago wherever he pleases: to the right, to the left at the top of at the bottom of his canvas.”

Several Impressionist painters were influenced by Japanese prints and Chinese art at the time. Monet, like Van Gogh, even copied some of them in oil paint. He built a bridge in his water garden at Giverny in the style of a Japanese bridge on a Hokusai print. He was photographed on it with Clemenceau.

But the influence on the large water lilies has not always been mentioned.

One of the salient characteristics of Chinese landscape painting is that one doesn’t just stand back and take in the whole as a coherent design, but rather, might follow a path the artist has laid out, along a river or up a mountain, finally coming to rest at a little halfway house for contemplation.

  Many such paintings are not even possible to view in toto, since they are scrolls that must be slowly unwrapped and rerolled as you follow a journey from one end to the other. The details along the way are to be lingered over. In such work, there is no controlling or overarching composition or design. Only the detail.

And in Monet’s earlier paintings, there are horizons, rivers, trees, umbrellas, flowers — something to make a shape within the shape of the canvas, a single pattern that one can step back and take in at a single bite.

But when you have a 42-foot long panel that is 7 times longer than it is high, and in a room too narrow to step back to take it all in at once, you are forced to view the work as if it were a scroll, and enjoy detail after detail as you walk along the painting’s length. 

And so, you step from detail to detail in the Orangerie, relishing the daub of yellow and the streak of blue and, if you are in the receptive mood, you let go anxiety and discontent and let the water and floating lily pads calm you into a restful and meditative state. 

Orangerie detail

Or, as Monet put it, “it would attain the illusion of a whole without end, of a watery surface without horizon and without banks; nerves overstrained by work would be relaxed there, following the restful example of the still waters, and to whomsoever [visited], it would offer an asylum of peaceful meditation at the center of a flowery aquarium.”

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The Morris Museum of Art

I have been out of the art game for nearly six years now. A good deal of the need for currency has sloughed off me. I was an art critic for 25 years, but now in retirement, I no longer keep up with this week’s latest and greatest. 

There was a time when I believed that knowing where the art world was headed seemed important. The biggest names were those breaking new ground, forging ahead into an unseen future of art history. Now, such things seem unimportant, and the concern misguided. For one, prognosticators are almost always wrong; we always seem to head in some new directions unforeseeable. When I was very young, the future of art was most certainly found in abstraction. Nothing was so disparaged as figurative art, and worse, art with narrative. 

Then came Pop. Cool, ironic, lowbrow and — fun. After that, bingo, along came Robert Longo, Mark Tansey and Cindy Sherman. Narrative and figurative — albeit with a great frosting of irony. There was politically engaged art, conceptual art, ironic politically engaged conceptual art. Comic book characters came, signing the Declaration of Independence. Then balloon animals made of shiny chrome. And, of course, the shark in formaldehyde. 

I am not writing to disparage any of this art, but to remind you that trends come and go. Julian Schnabel is first the new thing, then the forgotten thing and then the joke reference. 

But none of this actually matters. That is all stuff for the “Art World.” The Art World is only tangentially related to art. It is a parallel universe. The Art World in 1890 paid no attention at all to Vincent Van Gogh. Later, his paintings sell for million and millions. Did they get better over the years since his death? 

Making such judgments of art-value are really rather pointless. You can fix the price of any painting or painter at auction, but, like the stock market, the values go up and down. The art remains unchanged.  

No, keeping up with the latest shows, the hottest news, the catchiest trend, it has all fallen away. I no longer care. Let CNN announce the latest unfathomable number from the latest Christie’s auction; let Fox make fun of Jeff Koons. The art remains, waiting for us to see it for ourselves. 

I am reminded of all this once again as I walk through the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Ga. The Morris is a small museum, dedicated to Southern art: art by Southern artists; art by non-native artists living in the South; and art made anywhere about the South. It opened in 1992 on the second floor of an office building in downtown Augusta, by the river. With some 5,000 works in its collection, it is small by comparison with any of the Big Boys. 

“Candidates for the Horse Show,” 1893, John Martin Tracy

Yet, walking through its galleries gave me immense pleasure. There were a few familiar names, but most of the art was made by those with either regional reputations or little reputation at all. But what I came away with is the sense, reinforced, that there is an amazing amount of talent out there. You don’t have to be a brand name in a New York gallery to be worth the time. There is a great deal of art being made that is well-made, thoughtful, distinct and individual. Art that, if the cards had been shuffled just a bit differently, might well be the work we cover in the big art magazines. 

“Toula Waterfalls,” William C.A. Frerichs

I knew at least five artists in my years in Arizona who could have shown in any 57th Street gallery with pride. I loved their work: Jim Waid; Mayme Kratz; Marie Navarre; Anne Coe; Bailey Doogan. Actually, I can think of another dozen whose work I enjoyed. Each state has its share of excellent artists who just never won the Blue New York Ribbon. All giving great pleasure and thoughtful content. 

“Mrs. James F. Robinson,” Trevor Thomas Fowler

The Morris Museum features some historic art, mostly portraits from the 19th century, and a treasure of modern and contemporary art. There is glass and there are prints. 

“The Art of Drawing” 1998, James William “Bo” Bartlett III

The longest gallery contains the modern and contemporary work and moving from canvas to canvas provided me with one pleasure after another. This may not be cutting edge, but it is sharp enough. 

“The Merry Boatmen,” 2000, Terry Rowlett

The currents of Postmodernism are strong, but also the awareness of cultural roots. 

“Gospel Sing,” 1997, Dale Kennington

The artists represented are diverse; not all old white men. 

“Col. Poole’s Pig Hill of Fame,” 1995, John Braeder

The sense of Southernness is strong, and since I have been an adopted Southerner, deeply buried in a profoundly Southern family, much of it resonates strongly. 

“Tobacco Setters on a Hilltop,” 1938, Stephen Alke

If the South ever was the “Desert of the Bozart,” it no longer is. (Really, it never was — count your Nobel Prize winners, the writers anthologized in school texts, the “classical music” of America: Jazz. The South is more profoundly aware of its cultural heritage, Black and White, than any other region I have lived in). 

“Boundary Marker,” 2000, Kesler Woodward

We are misled if we think that art only counts if it is published in books. The fact is, that most of us only get to see the famous works in reproduction. But halftones can never capture the reality of a live work of art. You can gain more from seeing a lesser-known regional painting in person than from any slide in an art history class or jpeg on Google. The real thing is alive, not embalmed. 

“Azalea Cafe,” 1994, Shirley Rabe Masinter

Indeed, just the work you read about is already second-hand; the opinion you have of it has already been filtered and siphoned by those who have gone before. 

“Daughters of the South,” 1993, Jonathan Green

Seeing something fresh, uncategorized by authority, gives you the chance to discover it for yourself. Finding something unknown to the urbanized critics can make it your own. Like discovering a geode in the woods, or a Hermes handbag at the Goodwill. 

“Cotton Barn at Beech Island, S.C.,” 1998, Wolf Kahn

There are many such smaller art museums around the country. The Portland Art Museum in Maine; the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut; the Storm King Art Center in New York; the Brandywine River Art Museum in Pennsylvania; the American Visionary Art Museum in Maryland; the Delaware Museum of Art; the Maier Museum of Art in Virginia; Bainbridge Museum of Art in Washington; the Reno Museum of Art in Nevada; the Rahr-West Art Museum in Wisconsin; the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in Michigan; and too many others to list. Check out what you have near you. 

“Rock Shop Billboard,” 2007, Julyan Davis

Most universities have art museums or galleries that are worth visiting. 

Pretty much any way you can get to see art in the flesh is worth it. There is an astonishing amount of talent out there to be enjoyed. 

Art is not some unimaginable enterprise reserved only for the cognoscenti. It is not something only made by the Enormous Reputations. Any art you actually get pleasure or ideas from is worth the time. And it’s all around. 

Click on any image to enlarge

Pablo Picasso painting Guernica in his studio, Paris, 1937; photograph by Dora Maar

When Pablo Picasso painted Guernica, he knew he was making a monument. When Milton wrote Paradise Lost, he knew he was writing for the ages. When Bergman filmed Seventh Seal, he knew he was saying something important and not merely entertaining us with a cool story.

Art is often made with large purpose. Artists may work a whole lifetime to be able to sum things up in a major piece, or group of pieces, like  the Isenheim Altarpiece of Grünewald, or Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.

In these cases, the art becomes an entity in itself, a thing produced. It takes on a life beyond its maker’s; it is a milepost in cultural history. We look to it not only for beauty, but for wisdom, for inspiration, for a sense that there is something large which we all share as humans.

On the other end of the spectrum are the snapshots we take of our families, on birthdays, on vacations, on weddings. As such, the photographs are seldom seen as esthetic objects, but rather encapsulated memories — something to hold fast a fleeting moment of importance to our singular lives. They may capture something intensely human, but that is not their primary purpose.

(It is always fun to scavenge anonymous snapshots to find glimmers of the idiosyncratic or the universal, that is, to see them as if they were intended as art. But that is a piece of active curation on our parts, as if we were the artists ourselves, editing the random into a coherent message. The family photos were never meant to hang in art galleries.)

Even if a painter isn’t making a Sistine Chapel, if he is a professional, he is creating a commodity — an object that can be sold. And even if it’s not bought, the thing exists as a thing. There it is, framed and hanging on a wall, with track lighting making it glow jewel-like in the gallery.

But there is something between these two poles — between commodity and snapshot. It is the artist’s working sketch, never meant to be sold, never meant even to be seen. It is either the artist trying out ideas for a painting, or — and this is even more important — just keeping his hand in.

There is something of the throwaway in such noodling, but there is also something of value we shouldn’t underestimate.

We often forget that there is an intimate connection between art and the experience of living. It has been made easier to forget because in the last half century or so, a good deal of art has been made simply about art, about its materials, its limits, its meaning, its history. But through most of that history, art was about the world. Whether it was landscape or still life, whether portrait or history painting, it was meant to reflect something of our common experience of life.

Even when art has been about art, it has been about the experience, in life, of thinking about art. There is an unbreakable connection between experience and its image.Which takes me back to those sketches. Whether it is Picasso doodling on a napkin or Turner washing light watercolor pigment over rag paper, it is — aside from any commercial intention — an effort by the artist to make the connection with the world. To see, and see clearly.

Andreas Gursky

Photography, as much as painting, has its monuments, whether it is an Edward Weston pepper or Ansel Adams’ Moonrise Over Hernandez, or more recently, the giant photomurals of Thomas Struth or Andreas Gursky. They are the opposite of family photos.

But there is a middle ground in photography, also. It is the equivalent of an artist sketching. Photographer Lee Friedlander calls it “pecking.” It is the quick, improvisatory snapping of bits of the world, to see what is there.

With is 35mm rangefinder Leica camera, Friedlander says, “you don’t believe you’re in the masterpiece business. It’s enough to be able to peck at the world.”

Only afterwards, going through his accumulation, does he edit and pick a few that stand on their own to be published or to be exhibited. But the interesting part, to Friedlander, is the engagement with the world.

“I take more to the subject than to my ideas about it. I am not interested in any idea I have had, the subject is so demanding and so important,” he says. “Sometimes just the facts of the matter make it interesting.”

Friedlander is amazing in that his peckings are often so visually rich and complicated that they are nearly as Baroque as a painting by Rubens. Action seems to be in every corner of the frame.

But you don’t have to be an artist as good as Friedlander to engage with the things of this world. Making photographs is a way of seeing, similar to sketching. It is about paying attention. We can focus on the details.

For many Americans — maybe most humans anywhere — only use their eyes for useful things. They see the road they drive on, the could that tells them it will rain, the house, the car, the coat closet. When they make a snapshot for the family album, it is enough to be able to name the items in the picture — that is Uncle Vern, that is the house we used to live in, that is my first car — and beyond the naming of the subject, we don’t really pay attention to what is there. Most probably, we have framed the image so the house or the uncle stands dead center in the frame.

Frielander talks about the potency of the photograph describing what is either his experience when he was a boy with his first camera, or perhaps anyone’s similar experience: “I only wanted Uncle Vern standing by his new car (a Hudson) on a clear day. I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and seventy-eight trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.”

For Friedlander, his life work became making all these disparate bits harmonious in the frame. Again, like a Rubens.

For most of us, these pecked pictures are mostly details. They are not the grand view or the concatenated whole, but the tiny bits out of which the larger scene is built. Most of us pay attention only to the whole, when we pay attention at all; for most Americans — maybe most humans anywhere — only use their eyes for useful things. They see the road they drive on, the cloud that tells them it will rain, the house, the car, closet. But every house has a door, and every door a door-handle; every car has tires and every tire a tread and each tread is made up of an intricate series of rubber squiggles and dents. Attention must be paid.

Paying attention to the details means being able to see the whole more acutely, more vividly. The generalized view is the unconsidered view. When you see a house, you are seeing an “it.” When you notice the details, they provide the character of the house and it warms, has personality and becomes a Buberesque “thou.” The “thou” is a different way of addressing the world and one that makes not only the world more alive, but the seer also.

(It doesn’t hurt that isolating detail makes it more necessary to create a design. You can make a photo of a house and just plop it in the middle of the frame and we can all say, “Yes, that’s a house,” and let the naming of it be the end-all. But if you find the tiny bits, they have to organize them in the frame to make something interesting enough to warrant looking at.)

Sectioning out a detail not only makes you look more closely, but forces your viewer to look more closely, too. Puzzling out what he sees without the plethora of context makes him hone in on its shape, color, and texture. It is a forced look, not a casual one.

This is a rich world, profound in detail, millions of species, visual patterns in every rock and cloud. Each bit of rust on a grate is intense, when noticed. And noticing is what “pecking” is all about. With my own peckings, I am not making any argument for them as art; they will not be hanging in a gallery. I make them for myself, to force me to pay attention to the minutiae that are the bricks of the visual world they inhabit. And paying attention is a form of reverence.

Click to enlarge any image

house
The Seine  river loops northwest out of Paris into the rich, green French countryside of Normandy. The river is contained by low parallel ridges of hills on either side that form a kind of geologic sluice guiding the flow of the river toward Le Havre  and the ocean.

Some 50  miles from Paris, near the provincial town of Vernon,  the River Epte joins the Seine, although to call the Epte a river is to exaggerate.

It is hardly more than a creek.

Nothing would make one notice this tiny riverine junction, if it were not that Claude Monet chose this area to live, to paint, and to create one of the most celebrated gardens in the world.path

The great Impressionist painter moved to the hamlet of Giverny (Zhee-vair-nee) in 1883, and from then until his death in 1926,  he cultivated the kind of garden that made his home a modern Eden. Even now it is as much pilgrimage destination as tourist attraction.giverny village street

“Once settled, I hope to produce masterpieces,” Monet wrote his dealer when he first came to Giverny, “because I like the countryside very much.”

Monet settled on a two-acre parcel of land that sloped from the center of the village down toward the small branch of the Epte that runs parallel to the road. There he set up house with his second wife, Alice Hoschedé, and their combined brood. It was a bustling bourgeois home, full of bustles and lace, children and cakes.flower 1

The house still exists: an odd old farmhouse, it is only one room wide and long as a barn, made of pink stucco, with forest green shutters and doors.

Each room is painted in its special color – the kitchen is blue and the dining room is brilliant yellow. Monet had little use for beige.clos normande from window

Outside is the “clos Normand,”  or the Norman enclosure, where Monet immediately began planting his garden, “so that there would be flowers to paint on rainy days,” he wrote.

But the garden took over. By the time he set to work on the great waterlily paintings that he gave to the nation as a gift, he had six gardeners on his staff.flower 2

Thousands each year make the pilgrimage to Giverny. They want to see where Monet worked; they want to see the waterlilies that he made into icons of art. But the gardens still retain their independence: There are those who visit not because of the painter, but because of the flowers themselves.

Monet’s property has become one of the greatest gardens in the world.

In the summer, the place is crowded, but in the spring and fall, the tourists fade away and you can have the grounds to yourself, or nearly so.flowers against wall

One would think that in the middle of October, when the rains are already cold on your skin, the flowers would have died away, but it is not true.

Even then, the clos Normand is riot with the yellows of sunflowers, the reds of dahlias, the blues of asters and the pinks of cosmos. The garden paths are choked with flowers.clos normande

It was an effect that Monet sought: that weedy nature should take over the place, luxuriant in growth.

The formal French garden, as you find it in Versailles or the Tuileries, is orderly and tamed. Square and round plots, with a grid of garden path between. Every flower marches in rank and file, as if their gardeners were drill sergeants.clutter

In distinction, the English garden gives us a different vision of nature.

There, the meandering forest paths take us past informally planted shrubbery and flower beds, to provide the illusion that we are not in a garden at all, but rather walking through some especially lush bit of wildness.flower 3

Monet’s garden is a hybrid of these: The paths are rectilinear and formal, but the plants have taken over, spreading out over the footways, up into the air and intertwined with each other. There is a formal layout, but a rich chaos of growth defeating the formality. It creates the illusion of a patch of garden left untended so the flowers grow rampant.

The effect is still overpowering. Instead of looking down at patches of roses or dahlia, they instead grow up to nose-height, so they force their aroma into your nostrils. They rise to eye level as you walk the paths.

They hang overhead and dangle down at you.greenhouse

One cannot help but recall the stanza by Andrew Marvell:

“What wondrous life is this I lead!

Ripe apples drop about my head;

The luscious clusters of the vine

Upon my mouth do crush their wine;

The nectarine and curious peach

Into my hands themselves do reach;

Stumbling on melons as I pass,

Insnared  with flowers, I fall on grass.”flower 4

The present gardens are a miracle. After Monet’s death, his family dispersed and eventually left the old homestead to ruin. The gardens fell untended, the house sprung leaks.

As the great art critic John Rewald  wrote, “Rodents – as undernourished as the local inhabitants (at the end of World War II) – had gnawed away the roots of the plants in and around the pond. The waters had stopped flowing – it was a dried-out, devastated, heartbreaking site. Nothing was left but the memory of past glories and the paintings of Monet, of which quite a few were still in the house and others in the studios, where some of the skylights were broken.”house 2

The artist’s son, Michel,  hadn’t lived there for decades and showed little interest in keeping the place up. When he died, in 1966,  he bequeathed both estate and paintings to the French Academy of Fine Arts.  The grounds were slowly restored and the gardens replanted, taking as their guides the many paintings and photographs that had documented the place.flower 5

And in 1980,  the gardens were opened to the public, nearly 100 years after Monet first started planting bulbs.

Modern visitors find a large parking lot south of the gardens, within easy walking distance. The entrance to the garden takes them first through the large studio Monet had built to paint his large waterlilies in. It is now also the gift shop. Through that and into the clos Normand, you get your first view of the long shotgun house, covered in vines and flowers.red flowers

The clos is gridded with pathways, skied-in with trellises and arches and splattered with the petal-dots of color.bridge 2

As Monet himself wrote of them, “The overall effect is endlessly varied.

Not just from one season to the next, but from one minute to the next, for rather than making up the whole spectacle, the flowers are only the accompaniment to it.”waterlilies

In the water garden across the road, he noted, “the heart of everything is the reflecting mirror of the water, whose appearance fluctuates endlessly according as it catches the teeming life and movement of the every-changing sky. A passing cloud, a freshening breeze, a squall that looms then strikes, the gale that comes without warning, the light that fades then intensifies anew – all these things transform the color and texture.”Bingo

“How could such sweet and wholesome hours/Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers?”

Stephen Spender   The English poet Stephen Spender wrote a poem whose first line I can’t get out of my head: “I think continually of those who were truly great.”
Of course, Spender was writing about political issues, but I can’t help thinking how this line might apply to art.
Because, we use such words rather loosely in the art world. This is “great,” that is “great.” But this devalues the word. I think continually, not of the great writer, painters and musicians who have populated our world, our college curricula and our anthologies — there are many: so many, no one — not even Harold Bloom — can read, see and hear them all — but rather I am thinking of what Spender might call the “truly great.” There are so few of them.
These are those men (and I’ll qualify that soon if you give me a minute) whose works either changed the world significantly or at least changed the culture, or whose works are recognized by a preponderance of humankind to have the deepest insight into the human condition.
It is best understood if we start with science. Who was “truly great?” You could name hundreds of great thinkers, from Watson and Crick to Louis Pasteur to Edwin Hubble. Their contributions have been invaluable. But none of them so completely changed our thinking or ruled it for so long as my three nominees: Aristotle, Newton and Einstein. Each remade the world.three scientists
Who in the arts can have had such effect? These are the people whose works are the core of our culture, the central axis of our understanding of how the world looks, feels, acts, and responds.
The Big Boys.
You may have your own thoughts on the matter: That is not the issue.  We can haggle over the contents of the list. The issue is whether there are some creators whose works are so essential to culture that to be ignorant of their work, is to be ignorant. Period.
In literature, I would say the list begins with Homer and Shakespeare. They are the consensus leaders. If I would add Chaucer, Milton and Dante to the list, so be it. You can add your own. But Homer and Shakespeare are “truly great” in this sense.
What I am suggesting is that in each field, there are probably such consensus choices. In music, you have Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Surely others belong on the list. I would include Haydn, Wagner and Stravinsky. You can add your own, but again, if you are not familiar with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, your education is incomplete.
Among painters, you have Raphael, Rembrandt and Picasso. No one will argue against them. There are many painters that could be included: Titian, Michelangelo, Monet, Turner — the list is expandable depending on your taste, but who has had more influence than Raphael? More depth than Rembrandt? More expanse than Picasso?
(I am purposely narrowing my list to European culture, not because I think that is is the only one that counts, but because I swim in it rather than another, and because I have not enough exposure to everything in other cultures to claim even the slim authority I have discussing Western culture. If I had my way, I’d add Hokusai to this list, but he is ruled out by the operating principles of my system.)
Who are the sculptors? Michelangelo, surely; Bernini and Rodin. Others are great, but these are the standard-bearers.
Try it for yourself. Among novelists, who are our Newton and Einstein? Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and James Joyce.
Again, you may put forth your Fielding, your Trollope or Dickens and I won’t argue. This is only my list and it is surely provisional. It is merely my meager assay. It is my claim that there are the “truly great.” And that they offer something bigger, larger and more powerful than even the best of the rest. They have altered the course of the planet. Or at least the people upon it.
One final caveat: Where are the women? I am not so churlish that I don’t recognize the many great artists who are built with X chromosomes. My argument is with history, not with women: Historically, women have been blocked from the world of art. This is not so anymore, or at least not to the extent it has been true in the past. I was an art critic for a quarter of a century, and I saw the art world shift from a boy’s club to a much more open thing. Most of the best artists I came across were women. Many of our best and most honored writers are now women. In the future, I have no doubt there will be women who shake the world the way Michelangelo did. But I have to look backwards for my list, not guess at the future.
So, does Gertrude Stein belong here? Or Virginia Woolf? This is not to gainsay their genius or the quality of their work. Everyone should read them. But I am not writing about the great: I am comparing them to Shakespeare. The lack of women on this list is a historical artifact, not a prescriptive injunction.
The world is sorely lacking for heroes these days. We don’t even trust the idea of the hero. He surely must be in it for himself; there must be some ulterior motive. It’s all about power, say the deconstructionists. It is all reduced to a steaming pile of rubble and we shout with glee over taking down the idols and smashing them.
But I am suggesting that we actually read Homer, study Rembrandt, listen to Beethoven’s late quartets with the intensity and importance we otherwise give to defusing a bomb.
We should read or listen or look as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.

I hate style. When I hear an artist say she has finally found her ”style,” I get nauseous. Style is not what art is about.

Style should be the way something needs to be said. I see too much art wherein the artist has chosen a clever style, as if it were a shirt from a J.C. Penney catalog, and then tries to stuff it with something.

Artists who read art history and try to figure out where it is going next will always be shortsighted. Art is going where it will next because of some great imagination whose vision of reality cannot be expressed in the old vocabulary.

Younger artists tend to need style tricks more, just as older artists seem to strip down their style, like the final Kurasawa films or late Tolstoy.ran

As an example: The greatest writing survives translation well. Lesser, more refined artists often are untranslatable because their substance is the fugitive stuff of style. Tolstoy, Homer, Dostoevski and Dante are all powerful despite language problems. They each concerned themselves with powerful searching problems and explored the mazes of those problems with shocking honesty (in the terms of their times).

The search within

Artists and writers now need to search their innards for analogous problems. Our answers won’t be Dante’s answers, but art on the level of importance as the Paradiso is needed.terpning

Rembrandt; Picasso; Beethoven; Dostoevski; Dante; Michelangelo; Raphael; Hokusai; Bach; Homer; Shakespeare; Cervantes; Chaucer; Neruda; Matisse; Durer; Sophocles. . . . Does LeRoy Neiman, after all, belong on that list? Or Howard Terpning, or Frank Frazetta?

Four modes

There are four modes of producing art. I don’t mean discrete modes, but that they are four points on a spectrum. They are:guernica

–› The artist connects with something real in the world or the medium and, because his discovery cannot fit the molds cast by previous artists, he forges a new style. Picasso and Beethoven are representatives of this mode. Inner drive and a sense of the insufficiency of the old styles cause the creation of a new style.wyeth winter 1946

–› With some other artists, the interaction with authentic experience causes no feeling of the inadequacy of the existing styles. The connection with something real is still there, but accepted style merely becomes the mother tongue to discuss or develop the connections. Brahms, Andrew Wyeth and Rachmaninoff are possible examples.

The next two modes differ from the first in that the prime aim of the artist is not to express some genuine engagement with the world, but rather to manipulate style.

–› One is an imitation of the first mode, wherein the style is foremost and the artist attempts to create novelty rather than express something larger. Many students, too young to have anything real to say, are guilty of this mode.

–› The last is an imitation of the second, in that the conventional style is used with limited substance. Montovani, Cowboy artists or the truckloads of ”starving artist” oil paintings are prime examples. Neither message nor style is genuine, but only imitates the ”look” of art.

Like all those people who think they can paint like Jackson Pollock.amateur pollock

Style is seductive

louis armstrongStyle is a demon that seduces us. Audiences often choose by style and not by intrinsic worth: Jazz listeners listen to Kenny G pop jazz before listening to Mozart; Classical fans will listen to Zelenka or Ditters von Dittersdorf before listening to Louis Armstrong’s Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.

If we consider the actual function of art, the problems become clear. Art organizes, on a primary level, the undifferentiated chaos we find around ourselves. If the world does not seem chaotic to you now, thank the artists who have gone before you and struggled with the problems of perception.

To an artist, who is a person not entirely enculturated, the things we take for granted — the things that seem self-evident — are not to be trusted. Is perspective a realistic portrayal of how we see? That is suspect. Is nuclear war an entirely bad thing? Maybe, on a deeper level, it would be good for an overpopulated planet drowning in its own sewage. Maybe. Is the world of dreams all in the mind? Or is it as valid a reality as the one with digital watches and brothers-in-law? Maybe more valid. What are the true relationships between men and women? Why do otherwise reasonable people commit horrors and atrocities? Maybe it is a normal function of being a human. Maybe.

The artist won’t necessarily answer these questions, but he will consider them, or questions like them, and will engage with his explorations and exit the labyrinth with a canvas gripped tightly in his mitts, and with a wild look in his eye.

Style is a means of avoiding these tough issues, substituting a disengaged, shallow cleverness.autumn rhythm

To make new art, the artist should not attempt to find novel juxtapositions, but should go back to that primary undifferentiated chaos and attempt to find an order directly from it. Too much mediocre art comes from people trying to be new rather than trying to be real.

corot avray

Each of us has certain works of art that we return to over and over. We might call it a “favorite song” or poem, but it is more than mere favor that makes these works perennial comforts. There is a core in them we find identity with, a sense that the piece was created especially for or about oneself. It is art we take personally.

There is a slight Corot painting at the Phoenix Art Museum that I have returned to for 15 years. Most people probably pass by without noticing it: It is just a tiny landscape with a few gray-green trees, a river or lake, and a couple of unrelated people mixed with a few cows.

Called Memory of Ville d’Avray, it is typical of many paintings produced by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot in the late 1860s and early 1870s.

Yet, there are many things that make this painting special.

Corot lived at a time of transition. Born in Paris in 1796, he lived through several revolutions, both political and aesthetic. Despite the tendency in many of his contemporaries, there is never a polemical word from Corot. He just did what he did — at some moments seeming conservative, at others radical. To him it was all the same. He was only interested in painting.

His art looks back to the great French painters of the Baroque, Claude and Poussin, yet at the same time, by painting outdoors and studying the ephemeral effects of weather and time, he became a precursor to the Impressionists. He seems perfectly comfortable, nestled in the cusp.

Before his time, a painting was a metaphorical window to look through at appropriate subject matter. After his time, the subject matter was not all that important, but its style was.

With the Impressionists and those who followed, style was meaning.

In Corot, and in this small painting, there is a perfect balance, with the perfect pitch, between its manner and its subject.

There are three central Corots: In his early landscapes, often of Italy, the sunlight is intense and the colors bright. The plein-air paintings inspired his Impressionist progeny. His portraits, mostly of young peasant women, foreshadow the heavy classicism of Picasso’s large-boned women, and in style imply the kind of planar vision that Cezanne made his own.

But in his later years, the third Corot appeared, more poetic, softer edged, with colors more subdued. The Memory of Ville d’Avray is one of these. In the 20th century, critics tend to praise Corot for the first two and ignore the third.

But Corot wasn’t wonderful because he pointed the way for Cezanne and Picasso, but because he was a great painter. In the Memory, he paints the landscape of his youth. He lived in Ville d’Avray, between Paris and Versailles. And the painting is full of the “emotions recollected in tranquillity” we know from Wordsworth. And it is full of Wordsworthian nature, too — a man waits in a skiff on the water and a woman kneels by a birch tree, presumably picking mushrooms.

But the painting itself is so smooth, so sensuous, in colors subtle and rich, in a light that is not the light of day, but of memory. You can almost hear the crickets, feel the humidity.

It is this nexus of outer and inner worlds that I find so satisfying. Corot isn’t making a point, either about the world or about the art of painting. But he is filtering his experience through his sensibility to the point the two can no longer be separated. The outer world seen literally is bland and naked. The mental world by itself is autobiography and trivial.

But the two alloyed make meaning.

"Michael Jackson and Bubbles" by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

In 1632, the young English poet John Milton, just out of college, took up residence at his father’s country estate at Horton, near Windsor. And for the next six years he managed to read everything that had ever been written and was extant, in all languages living and dead, that a European scholar of the time might have heard of. That included literature, history, biography, philosophy, science, mathematics — the whole throatful of it. milton cigar

Everything that had ever been written.

It boggles the mind. Today, we cannot even keep up with the magazines we subscribe to; most of human knowledge falls off the edge of the Earth, where the map of our erudition shows nothing but serpents. reading the oed

We can never achieve what Milton did; it’s foolish to even try. But shouldn’t we attempt at least some sketch of what was fully painted for the poet? There have been recent books by writers who have read every article in the Encyclopedia Britannica (The Know-It-All, One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, A.J. Jacobs, 2004), The Oxford English Dictionary (Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, Ammon Shea, 2008), or the equivalent of the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf (Great Books, David Denby, 1996), but such ventures are little more than stunts.

To absorb 5,000 years of human culture requires more than memorizing almanacs or dictionaries. It means to have a grounding in the art, literature, theater, music and architecture of our ancestors.

Of course, most of human knowledge, at least in ordinary life, in mass or pop culture and in our individual autobiographies is utterly trivial, and it would be a crime to stuff our brains with it.

But not all knowledge in this information age is trivial. There is still a core of useful literature — and I use the word in the broadest possible sense — that it behooves us to be acquainted with.

It is unfortunate that there is an argument over this. In the imbecilic culture wars that currently ravage the intellectual countryside, the lines are drawn between ignorant armies.

On one side, you find right-wing reactionary fossils fighting to maintain the canon of mainly European classics. On the other side, there is a cadre of victimization that wants to eliminate anything written by dead white males.

A pox on both their houses.

Milton didn’t have to worry about the canon. For him, the canon encompassed everything he could possible encounter.

Since that time, though, we have had to become more selective. Those items we have, as a culture, thought worth perpetuating we have called ”classics” and added them to the list — the canon — of ”required reading.”

But we misunderstand the very idea of culture if we believe the world froze solid with the publication of the Harvard Five Foot Shelf.

Corneille

Corneille

The canon is a garden that must be weeded and tended, and each season may call forth a different harvest.

The problem with the conservative view is that it values a former ”golden age” that our own time never measures up to. It is a sentimental view of life and history, and deaf to the fact that we live now, not in the imaginary ”then.” It is the voice of Cato, of Corneille, of William Bennett — a man of whom it is said he cannot sleep a-nights if he suspects someone, somewhere is having fun.

It is a view of an idealized perfection that we have disastrously fallen short of. It is one form of imbecility.

The problem from the other side is an egalitarianism that is just as moronic. According to them, nothing is better than anything else. Either it is merely a question of personal taste, or it is one of cultural identity.

By their standards, it is elitist to prefer Pablo Neruda to Rod McKuen. Let them, I say, let them renew their subscriptions to Us magazine.

They can deconstruct its gossip to death and find the parallels with Plutarch — if they only knew who Plutarch was.

To consider one “text” more important than another, for them, is to promote colonialism and the subjugation of the downtrodden.

Hence, they judge not by esthetic considerations — it’s all just personal taste to them — but rather by politics.

For them, politics overwhelms aesthetics — overwhelms reason, emotion, common sense and experience. For them, everything has a party line. Ah, but they forget, politics answers no question worth asking.

It also worries me that behind the masks of intellectual argument, I sense a fascism on each side — at the very least a certain priggishness to both sides that any reasonable human finds dangerous.

At bottom, the problem is that both sides make the mistake of believing the canon immutable and fixed. They see the canon as an end, one side blindly despising it and the other defending it like Texans at the Alamo.

But the canon, properly seen, is a beginning, not an end; a foundation, not a roof.

It is the ABC of cultural literacy, the cardinal numbers of thought.

One used to hear the warning that when you have sex, you are having sex with everyone your partner has ever slept with. Well, when you read a book, you are also reading everything that the author read. When you hear music, you also hear everything that composer heard.

Culture is the slow accumulation of thoughts and habits. To read Melville is to hear the diapason of King James under the rich melody of the prose. Every author is the product of multiplier and multiplicand: the writer’s imagination and the long road of history leading to his standing on the curb with his thumb out.

The fact is, we cannot read everything, the way Milton did. We must be more selective. Suggestions for that selective offering is what we call the canon. But it changes constantly: It now includes James Baldwin and Toni Morrison; it includes Derek Wolcott and Yukio Mishima;  The Beatles and Duke Ellington.

The Laocoon

The Laocoon

How can you understand Jacques Derrida without standing firmly on the firm ground of Kant’s a priori? How can you read Isabel Allende without sensing the spirituality of Calderon behind her words?

How can you understand Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles if you don’t already have the Elgin Marbles in your system? You can’t. How can you get the joke on the back of countless Yellow Pages if you don’t know the Laocoon?

Certainly, the old rationale for learnedness remains: These are great writers, profound thinkers and brilliant painters and sculptors and we cannot consider ourselves educated without their acquaintance. Knowing them is its own excuse. But even more important is that when you hear the echoes in a piece of art, see its ancestry, the piece resonates. Resonance is what gives art and literature is power. kane

Like the mirror scene in Citizen Kane, one man is multiplied into an army. Like Isaac Newton said, if we see further, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. It is a wise man who knows his parents.

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.