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Monday, December 23, 2013

Art and the Beginner's Mind

This morning I listened to Greil Marcus' 2013 commencement address to the New York School of Visual Arts on Brain Pickings.

Lots of  High Culture and High Art around me.  Versailles is filled with it - beautifully preserved and accessible to the public.  So much, in fact, that when I first arrived the city felt like a museum.

The center of everything, of course, is the Château and I've always found that a bit unfortunate.   If you come to Versailles and have some time after the obligatory pilgrimage to the castle, take a turn around town with two things in your backpack/purse:  Versailles Secret et Insolite by Nicolas Jacquet and the excellent guides published by the mayor's office.   The ones I enjoy the most are Curiosités architecturales and L'Itinéraire des Droits de l'Homme.  The last, in fact, should be required reading for Americans because to walk in certain parts of Versailles is to walk the path of the Founding Fathers.  Every American should remember that once we were a small, poor, struggling, renegade nation and our first diplomats were supplicants to the court of the French King, desperate for money, arms, troops and recognition.

The most obvious art in Versailles is the Art of Shock and Awe. How extraordinary, you say, as you and a few thousand tourists stand gaping before some gilded monstrosity constructed for the glory of the monarchy.  That's usually my first impression.  The second is less charitable,  "My God," I think,  "How much human suffering was required to build that?"

And from that you might conclude that I have a prejudice against High Art.  Yes, there is an association in my mind between the gaudy and the gilded and exploitation.  Where did this come from?  Probably my childhood.  I have vague but persistent memories of people around me speaking approvingly of Socialist Realism (or was that Social Realism?) and the art I was exposed to was usually local, produced by modest people who chose modest subjects.  Elton Bennett is a perfect example.  Born in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, he produced many lovely silkscreens of things like tall ships and ferns.  I have one of the latter - an original Bennett that graces the wall of my living room.  It came to me as a gift from a French-American woman whose French parents were friends with the artist.

The first step in overcoming your prejudices is recognizing them.  Today I shamefully admit that this attitude was a kind of reverse snobbery - a disdain for art that was not produced by the people for the people but was the product of the Establishment (whatever that was at the time).  It was also pretty provincial in the sense that it implied that the only authentic art was local.  And that's just nonsense.   Since then I've learned to love Gothic cathedrals, Renaissance paintings and baroque music but I still don't know enough about these things to speak knowledgeably.  Call me an artistic idiot and I will own up to it.  I still think the Versailles castle is gaudy but if anyone out there believes they can reveal it in such a way that I might learn to look at it with new eyes, well, I'm open to that.

Assumption of the Virgin (Titian)
Greil Marcus talk is about what he thinks is the ridiculous (and false) distinction made between High and Low culture.  He talks movingly about how this painting in the Santa Maria basilica in Venice left him "in a puddle of acceptance" that the only true art was done for the glory of God.  Something, he says, he got over very quickly after he left the church, but felt very true when he was in the presence of this work by Titian.  It changed him:

"That’s what art does, that’s what it’s for — to show you that what you think can be erased, cancelled, turned on its head by something you weren’t prepared for — by a work, by a play, a song, a scene in a movie, a painting, a collage, a cartoon, an advertisement — something that has the power that reaches you far more strongly than it reaches the person standing next to you, or even anyone else on Earth — art that produces a revelation that you might not be able to explain or pass on to anyone else, a revolution that you desperately try to share in your own words, in your own work."

I recommend his words to you.  His  talk is only 20 minutes and he is a very good speaker - passionate and eloquent .  I agree wholeheartedly with Maria Popova that his definition of Art (High or Low) is a darn fine one.
"What art does — maybe what it does most completely — is tell us, make us feel that what we think we know, we don’t. There are whole worlds around us that we’ve never glimpsed."
Yes, I agree that it's about what it provokes in us but we have to be looking at it with a Beginner's Mind in order for that to ever happen.

Whatever it is,  it can't change us if we are not willing to be changed.  And it's as much about giving up our cherished politically correct mindsets and quaint notions about "authenticity" as it is in learning to be shocked and awed. 


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this on G. Marcus. High vs. low culture is a rich subject. People always seem surprised that one can admire both Proust and, say, Clint Eastwood.

I once interviewed Marcus at his wonderful house in the Berkeley Hills for the newspaper where I worked. His proudest possession then was a relic from a Led Zepplin concert he had once attended.

Thanks, too, for your recent link to and coverage of the Fatca seminar in Paris. Those of us who live on the outskirts of Europe are v. grateful

Victoria FERAUGE said...

I'm always surprised how art inspires such snobbery. I think calling it fascism is going a bit far but there is a lot judgement going on here on all sides. I envy you your opportunity to meet Marcus. I was thinking as I listened to thge podcast that this is one fellow I would LOVE to have next to me on an airplane.

And you are very welcome for the FATCA info. Hopefully as things progress there will be more info coming from other parts of the world.