Do I love you because you’re beautiful
Or are you beautiful
Because I love you?
That may be one of the great questions in art appreciation.
Stephen Sondheim also addressed the question in his own way:
Pretty isn’t beautiful, Mother,
Pretty is what changes
What the eye arranges
Is what is beautiful.
I’m not one to argue with Sondheim, but if I had written that lyric I’d probably have said “What the heart arranges . . .”
Is that bad?
The Mona Lisa may be the most famous painting of all time. I seem to always have known it. If anyone in the world knows only one painting, it is likely the Mona Lisa. In the much-damned (but not by me: I have an unseemly fondness for it and quite some admiration) movie “2012” it is one of the few saved from the destruction of the world. If you need a refresher course on it, go here:
Mona Lisa - Wikipedia
I’ll grant it is technically superb, and that counts. But pretty? (To go back to that word in the Sondheim lyric.) Well, it has never spoken to my heart.
I admire how the horizon line behind her head is not quite perfect: it looks the same on both sides of her head but really is not, and that trick of da Vinci’s seems to make her eyes more alive as your eyes try to resolve that discrepancy.
Is she admired because she is great or because she is famous? Is she a celebrity? Like the Kardashians? I think of Van Gogh: was he already great before he became famous? Is he great now because he sells for great sums?
Vincent. Da Vinci. I’d never before thought of the similarities of their names until 60 seconds ago.
Now I don’t dislike Mona. But I just don’t love her.
I’ve been thinking a lot about art lately. Among the confluences: An art exhibition in Greensboro of the work of Bethany Windham Engle. An American Masters segment on video artist Nam June Paik. The art work left by my late friend Greg Wood. A biography of George Balanchine. Contemplation of my favorite movies of all time.
The works of Engle and Wood are pretty enough but go beyond that into the realm of the beautiful (but I doubt that either will ever bring the sums than Van Gogh does, nor achieve the fame of Da Vinci’s work). Paik’s work does not please me nearly as much, but I find contemplating his life and influences fascinating. For me Balanchine’s work often soars. Yet in his life often he comes across as a heel (although he was more than that, more complicated than that, as so many of his dancers testify).
Why is it that I love movies like “2012” and “The Lone Ranger” that are usually dismissed or damned? Why do I appreciate and enjoy the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the degree that I do?
I guess the important word there is “love.” And another artist of some note once said “Love is blind.” And a later, and lesser, artist wrote: “It is only with the heart that one sees rightly . . .”
But love changes. In my 20’s I loved Ingmar Bergman and Frederico Fellini. Now I find it hard to watch their movies. Some of those I loved as a child I find myself disenchanted with, while others have grown in my memory and my heart into people I love. Among my great cinematic loves of a decade ago were David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, and lately I find them slipping just a bit in my esteem. But I will always love “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Interstellar.” And I still remain eager to see what they do next.
Wordsworth said that poetry was “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Maybe that’s what art often is. The work of Nam June Paik seems the opposite: it tries to address the now and even the future in present time. My heart is with Wordsworth, but my mind makes room for Paik.
As cinematic artist and poet and philosopher Terrence Malick constantly tries to capture the moment happening before him and then spends years studying them and putting them together into finished works of art. Another great cinematic Terence (one r) Davies constantly looks back, most notably in his masterwork “The Long Day Closes.”
For my taste art must look back. Thomas Pynchon looked back. So did Herman Melville. So did William Faulkner. And Shakespeare. But note that I said “my taste.” Yours might differ. But that’s all right.
George Balanchine began his dance training in Imperial Russia and grew to appreciate that and continued his training in Communist Russia, being also caught up in the intellectual excitement of the transition. Both influenced his future life and work. It may be the merger of tradition and revolution in his work that made me fall in love with his dances before I understood much at all about the medium.
The great thing about dance is that you don’t have to approach it intellectually: you simply have to look, and look, and look. And love. The bodies themselves. Their movement. Their movement through space and through music.
I don’t really understand the painterly arts. I am totally untalented in that field. I do know something about this history of art, thanks primarily to teacher Virginia Rembert at Birmingham-Southern when I was a student there.
Somehow I had accumulated enough credits so that in my final semester there I had to take only 2 courses. They were Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Art History. I’d studied Shakespearean comedies and histories the semester before, and I really wanted to sink my teeth deeply into the tragedies. I thought Art History would make an easy and pleasurable thing to take at the same time. It did. I even learned a lot
The 3-hour finals for both classes took place the same day. Shakespeare 9 to noon. Art History 1 to 4. I ran to my apartment in between for a quick break, a bite of lunch, and a shot of Scotch. I went into the Art History exam relaxed. That may explain what happened. I let myself go. Something I rarely do.
Much of the Shakespeare exam involved writing an essay, and we had been given choices. I elected “Compare an early and late tragedy of Shakespeare.” I tackled “Romeo and Juliet” and “King Lear.” The former: polished, witty, beautiful poetry (the meeting scene famously being a perfect sonnet between the 2 lovers). The second: rough, craggy, crude, ugly even. But by far the greater.
The Art History exam started with a slide show of works we had not studied by artists whom we had studied, the challenge to identify the artist. A snap, really. Then another essay. We were asked to compare early and later works by the same artist. I took Michelangelo. Particularly I took the Pieta and David, beautiful smooth, polished, and I compared them with “Romeo and Juliet.” The later works: craggy, rough, crude, often still seeming to be trapped in the blocks of stone from which they had been partially sculpted. “Lear.”
And I went back to my apartment, packed my bags, and returned home to Sawyerville.
A few days later Virginia Rembert called. She had been thrilled by my essay, and she asked my permission to use it in future courses as an example of the kind of thing that could be achieved in a final exam essay. Of course I said yes.
I wish I still had my copy of that essay with the A+ written on it.
I think my point in telling you this is to underscore my ideas, such as they are (although perhaps musings is better) about pretty, beautiful, and great. And what I love.
I mentioned the craft of da Vinci. Craft. Art. When does one become the other? Alfred Hitchcock was a great technician of film. I don’t argue with that. But was he an artist? I’m less certain. For a decade his ”Vertigo” held top spot in the British Film Institutes ranking of top 100 movies of all time based on votes by a large number of critics. I would not have even put it on the list. I was fascinated by it when I saw it on its initial release when I was 19. But every time I have seen it since my admiration has lessened. I would have been much happier if “Psycho” had been in that spot. (I could justify that but won’t here.)
But I admire his craft. Except when I don’t. Like all those terrible process shots showing the passing landscape outside of cars when the camera is inside. The Hitchcock lover would say that’s not important, Hitch wasn’t interested in that. But it throws me right out of the movie.
The Gee’s Bend quilts. Art? Craft? Something in-between? If we view them as craft, does that in any way diminish them and their beauty? Are they any better or more beautiful than the quilts my grandmother made out of scraps or the ones being made today by my cousin Holly? Of course, Gee’s Bend quilters got the press. My grandmother and Holly did not. But if they did, might their work be hanging in museums and in move stars’ houses beside the Gee’s Bend quilts?
Which brings us back to my earlier question about Mona: Is she admired because she is great or because she is famous?
Famous she is. A popular song once compared a woman to the painting:
Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you
You're so like the lady with the mystic smile
Is it only 'cause you're lonely they have blamed you?
For that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile?
Do you smile to tempt a lover, Mona Lisa?
Or is this your way to hide a broken heart?
Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep
They just lie there, and they die there
Are you warm? Are you real, Mona Lisa?
Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?
Singer Nat King Cole and songwriters Ray Evans and Jay Livingston did not have to explain any of the references in this song. They could safely assume that everybody knew them. And everybody did.
Well, perhaps there were a few who didn’t, and the song led them to the painting.
Art and popularity. Art and popular culture. Craft.
My grandmother took great pleasure in the quilts she produced. Of course they were utilitarian: you put them on your bed to keep warm at night. I often kept warm at night under quilts she made from neckties I had worn.
Maybe the artistic products I most love, some of which are mentioned above, are the ones that keep my soul warm at night. There are worse criteria.
But things change. I change. In the same Sondheim song that is acknowledged:
It keeps changing
I see towers
Where there were trees
All the stillness
All the time
When things were beautiful...
But (as the song acknowledges) changing is not necessarily bad.
As I have written this oddball piece I have noticed a change in me: I like the Mona Lisa more than I did when I started. Do I love her yet? No, but give me time . . .