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Viewing art


Alone In The Room With Art

Reading David Nice’s recent essay on Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” started me thinking about having a personal relationship with a work of art – why I want it, how to have it, what it means. David’s description of a book that can so draw us into its story, that we have a sense of being part of it, comes to me in tandem with the description included in a friend’s post of a Schubert lieder, pointing out that the feeling conveyed is so deep, one feels as if alone with the singer in a room.

Because the novel reviewed involves the story of a stolen painting, it reawakens an old curiosity about stories based on art theft! Why should something despicable be interesting? If we had an original Van Gogh, for instance, and someone stole it, we would be crushed and livid! Mine! And, isn’t this what the art thief feels? Mine! Not the thieves who want to sell the art – but the ones who want to keep it.

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, my teenage years were punctuated by visits to the then free-entry Art Institute. Many a Sunday afternoon, after a weekend saturated with homework, I treated myself to a solitary trip downtown and spent a few hours wandering. Though it was Sunday, and it was downtown, I didn’t really have to dress up. But I did – I was visiting art, and it was important. On entering, I hurried first to pay homage to current favorites, where, ignoring the intrusion of casual gawkers, I stood, or sat, if possible, in front of each painting, gazing, drinking in, to the best of my ability, becoming one with it. I gave to each painting as much time as it seemed to want, before moving on to the next. No one else in the crowd of tourists and Sunday afternoon idlers had the same relationship with any of “my” paintings, I was sure.

It wasn’t enough, but it was what I could get. Though the reality of being left alone in the building overnight and sleeping in front of a beloved painting would have terrified me, I daydreamed about it. I even managed to work the image into a paper assigned for economics class, using it as a supposed metaphor for something or other. No doubt, it was perplexing to the poor teacher trying to follow my logic, and even I can’t justify that stretch of imagination now. The simple yearning for beauty, and for whatever more art represents and conveys, is innate in us. We’re lucky, if we’re artists and can make it. If not, we have to find another way to be close to it.

On the way out of the museum or gallery, we go into the shop and purchase postcard reproductions, little tastes of the big experiences, to take home and pin up, to keep the feeling going. An early acquisition was a postcard of Paul Klee’s “Fish Magic”. In the third grade, we had learned to make paintings by, first coloring a picture with crayons, and then coating the whole paper with paint. The paint adhered to the paper and only spotted the wax of the crayons. My creation was of two leaves, one gold, one red, painted over with a black background, and entitled “Autumn”. When I saw “Fish Magic”, I thought, here was an artist who shared my own technique – well done! The miniature went up on my bedroom bulletin board, where it remained throughout my childhood. The original of “Autumn”  hangs in the hallway.

Finally, I have come across a ritual, a perfect experience for appreciating art. I learned that Charles Lang Freer, who donated his vast collection to The Smithsonian Institution, first hung the collection in his Detroit home, where he developed a reverent ceremony for sharing a single work of art with friends. Freer had a specially designed gallery in his home, where he and his friends would assemble near sundown. Served with refreshments, they would all sit, as he brought in a work of art, and remain enjoying it in the light of the setting sun. It was described as an almost metaphysical aesthetic experience! Though this ideal of art appreciation enthralls me, I have learned that it doesn’t speak to everyone. I described it to one of my artist friends, a person who has often complained of feeling undervalued in the world. Expecting her to be as thrilled as I felt, I was stunned when she rejected the idea as sounding like snobbism! “But, wouldn’t you love for people to spend fifteen minutes contemplating one of your paintings?” “No! I wouldn’t look at any painting, even my own, for that long – maybe fifteen seconds! The idea of people sitting around drinking cocktails,” (Had I said “cocktails”?) “while looking at one work of art, is elitist!”

Noted. Not for everyone. But it still holds great appeal for me. Sitting in the presence of a single work of art, sipping a cup of tea – or, perhaps, a cocktail, now that it has been suggested – as the light fades, is just the right pace for me. I might add some quiet music, if it doesn’t detract. It seems a lovely experience to share with like-minded friends – or, if none surface, just alone in the room, with art.



“The Arts”, Five Decades Later, But Who’s Counting?

In another forum, blog author Susan Scheid ( recently brought up the subject of a high school music appreciation course, prompting me towards recollection of my own beginnings. And this seems like a good time, as another year in the blog concludes, to reflect on what brought me here and what inspires me to continue.

Art and music

Not exclusively a personal history, a required class in my high school called “The Arts” may ring familiar to many readers here as the earliest allusion to the connections among the humanities. It was a large lecture hall class, divided into a semester each of art and music appreciation, without any mingling of subjects, despite both teachers being present the whole year. To make clear how little even the administration thought of any attempt to turn teenagers into cultured beings, my first (soon to retire) guidance counselor advised me to take the course my freshman year, “to get it out of the way.”

So I attended the lecture class as a clueless 14-year-old. (As a senior, I would have doted on it. By then, I was, inexplicably, including in almost every paper a comparison between the subject assigned, and a painting of my choice. Worked pretty well with literature, though more of a stretch in some other subjects.) By high school, I had stopped taking piano lessons, though I already preferred classical to any other music. Classical meant FM radios, which were less common and more expensive. Of course, due to the type of classical favored at the time, whenever I turned on the FM radio between our living and dining rooms, I was assaulted by the sort of symphonic music which alarmed me. Still instinctively knowing that it was my area, I asked for an FM radio for my room, but was given an AM-only clock radio; the best I could do with that was easy listening, certainly not classical, yet less foreign to me.

The music teacher, Mr. Steele, is distinct in memory, as restrained, elegant and refined, compared to the art teacher, looking uncomfortable in a suit. But nothing specific from Mr. Steele’s class remains. What stays with me, at least in terms of the subject matter, was from the art teacher, Mr. Kinney. There was a moment early on, when he did hint at connections between music and art. He asked us, one day as the bell sent us fleeing up the tiers, to think that night about how a musical instrument and a painting were alike. I think that was the comparison. I was so startled by the suggestion that any two subject areas could come together – after a few years of having them carefully separated, and taught by people who seemed to have no knowledge of the others – that I misheard him as asking us to write a paper about it. High school was offering insurmountable challenges. I talked it over with my mother, who found the notion interesting, and calmed me down. Mr. Kinney never asked for the paper I had written, and I threw it away. But I had found the slightest opening to the world of humanities, and wonderful aspects to them, like how they’re inspired, and how they can be different expressions of the same emotion.

So, I agree with the assertion Sue made in the group referenced that it “has turned out, in one sense, to be the music appreciation class that SHOULD have been, oh so long ago.” Just so, has been my continuing arts education here, through the blogs I follow by writers like Sue, and like David Nice ( ). Had I been in the same classroom with you, Sue, you might have asked me then, what I thought about the course. The lovely thing is that we’re in the class that should have been, and you’re asking now. Not a moment too soon!



Teachings of My Summer Toad

On a warm early morning this past summer, I opened the front door and stepped onto the porch, where I was surprised to find a toad sitting quietly. Assuming him to be as surprised as I, as well as vulnerable, and not wanting to frighten him, I passed carefully by, heading towards the yard and making it clear that I had no intention towards him. “Hullo, Toad,” I offered in a soft tone, as casually as I could, in the hope of dispelling any awkwardness. Toad remained still, unblinking. His demeanor was hard to assess. Was he watching me? Thinking about me? Was he calm or just unrevealing of his emotional state?

Though unexpected, his appearance wasn’t unprecedented. I had spotted the occasional toad in the yard, always in the summer, and always sitting quietly in whatever inward state toads may experience, simply not moving. I have never understood what they were doing here: there is no water, and I have only ever seen one at a time. Are they loners? The yard contains some mysterious small holes, but do toads squeeze themselves into them? I avoid the holes, hoping that the inhabitants, if any, won’t emerge while I’m near. There had even been a summer toad on the porch before. He appeared during the same season as a plant was passed along to me by a neighbor. The plant, a maranta, or prayer plant, was the one among all the pots which looked the most like Toad. How did he know that? He took up residence in the pot and could often be found there in the shade. If I didn’t see him and began watering, he sat patiently, perhaps even enjoying the soft shower. He stayed all summer and was called Rupert. Maybe this summer’s toad was Rupert, a resident of the neighborhood, showing himself again: perhaps he knows me, while I can’t tell one toad from another.

Recently, I heard someone use the phrase “trust the stillness.” I was delighted, especially at hearing it spoken by that particular friend. What an expression! Does he really think like that? Are those his words? I googled the words and found them used in various forms by many sources. So lots of people are trusting stillness, or at least talking about it, and I didn’t know – a popular idea existing all around me, of which I had been unaware. And I found myself thinking of Toad.

Toad arrived this summer and took up his post as my teacher. His arrival and departure, like everything about him, were unannounced. He gave me no syllabus, no reading to do, no assignment. In fact, he never spoke or acknowledged me in any way. I am not big, but I am huge compared to him; and yet, he appeared unimpressed. I don’t know what may go on in the consciousness of a toad, so I can only make human assumptions and imagine him to be like me. I liked him being here; and in my mind, he trusted me. I gave him as much space as I could and made myself quieter and slower – smaller – around him. Stillness reminds me of him, because it was stillness that we shared. I studied Toad and tried to give him the atmosphere he seemed to want. He gave me his presence.

Goose neck loosestrife2


The Insistence of Music, and Geese

There is no reason, no logical reason, why I should think of viewing the world like Gertrude Stein. But it is Stein who has been in my thoughts, since the morning I read this quote from her: “There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence.”

I hadn’t begun that day with Stein. I had begun by reading an exchange among some post comments which mentioned a comparison having been made between Dmitri Shostakovich and Philip Glass. (The participants, if they read this, will recognize the reference.) The music of both composers is only at the beginning of familiarity to me, that of Shostakovich mostly due to the fascinating series over at Prufrock’s Dilemma. But certainly, I was surprised to see their names paired, as I view them as composing in very different musical worlds. The point seemed to be that the compositions of both may appear limited and repetitive, to their critics, or at least to a listener unfamiliar with them. Perhaps that could be said of any unfamiliar artist or genre; still, seeing the names together made me wonder whether there could be a commonality. I felt bewildered yet intrigued; so, search I must, and did.

Strange bedfellows may often be discovered in search results, simply by linking two names or terms with a capitalized “AND”. Not expecting a real link, nevertheless I sought one between the two and was surprised to find that others before me had considered them together. Glass himself has even talked about his early years of listening to Shostakovich. I read whatever among the search results I could determine truly pertained to my query. But in the end, my lack of music theory left me focusing on Stein’s words, which were quoted in one of the articles: ““There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence.” And, realizing that the experience was bound to lead me, not to greater understanding of music, but to some sort of life lesson, I released the musical associations and held only to the quote, placed in the back of my mind, and waiting for the personal connection to reveal itself.

The revelation has been slow in coming. On occasion, I have thought of Stein’s words, trying to ponder repetition and insistence; but real insight cannot be forced, and this was slow. Then, one day this week, I walked past a garden patch of gooseneck loosestrife and saw that they are starting their flower heads: clusters of many tiny blossoms, which form a shape like the head of a goose. The slightest breeze makes the stalks sway and the heads bob. At a few feet tall, they grow in flocks of geese, ever-increasing, so that they appear to be on the march, and in fact do march into neighboring yards. As I noticed the newly forming goose heads, I remembered their mature, repetitive habit, and felt that the lesson about repetition and insistence was surfacing. The same day, in perfect synchronicity, blogging friend David left a comment on my last post, in which I had talked about my love of the kind of music which builds and crescendos – with the exception of Ravel’s Bolero.

Bolero, repetitive Bolero! Was this to be part of my lesson? I don’t mind how many geese grow in my yard, they never seem repetitive, at least not in an unpleasant way. Insistent, yes, marching and trumpeting: joyous! Would they today lead me to a new way of viewing Bolero? Following David’s suggestion, I looked up a carefully selected version of the music I had previously dismissed. Hearing that it was written as a ballet, I see that it needs the ballet, the form of excellent dancers who can control the music with their dignity. Cheap and obvious, the words I had used before, fade away in the presence of art. David wrote in his comment that Bolero works best taken slowly, and how true! Wonderful dancers, accompanied by a great conductor and orchestra, make me see the importance of the timing.

Timing, being everything, brought about the unlikely pairing of goose-headed flowers and a piece of famous music I had not yet experienced in its true form. In the season when the geese emerge in their insistent formation, we have all come together.

Credits: Whatever little understanding of the original question I have begun to gain, I owe to writers David Luhrssen (,-dmitri-shostakovich-get-modern.html), Be’eri Moalem( and Jeffrey Brown (



Bolero and the Aged R.

There must be a term for the sort of music that builds and crescendos, but I don’t know it. I know only that I have a fondness for it, for pieces such as Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major and Marin Marais’s Sonnerie de Sainte Geneviève. Even – though you may gasp – Mason Williams’s Classical Gas is fun. Such compositions are, to me, a quiet sunset, just a faint pink in the sky, which fades gently: refined, self-contained.

But I do not like Bolero. Ravel’s composition continues enjoying popularity, apparently, and it is often performed; but the first few notes play, and I shrink. It sounds cheap and obvious, a strutting ego, dressed in red, talking too loudly. Like hearing someone I hardly know share “too much information,” I feel a little embarrassed and wait uneasily for the moment to pass.

Characteristically generous, PBS gave us a wonderful broadcast on New Year’s Eve, great music to say goodbye – and right away hello – as the years passed in a revolving door of supposed ending and beginning anew. Yo Yo Ma, the featured musician, would join the New York Philharmonic, so I hadn’t bothered to read the program; I watched because of Yo Yo Ma. They began with something by Ravel, and a Piazzola, which were good. The stunning performance was of Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul, a composer and piece unknown to me, featuring the cello. It wasn’t quite my sort of music, but Ma’s complete immersion in his playing of it was enthralling. He appeared transported, almost ecstatic! I listened on because of him and was greatly rewarded, so moved. And then came Bolero.

I take care of an Aged Relative who has both brain damage and dementia. Recent events disappear from her memory quickly, but old memories can be vivid. Childhood memories are keenest of all, and she had a happy youth, leading to conversations that give her great pleasure. Anything that prompts a pleasant memory is a valuable key, to keep track of and use again. Luckily for me, she enjoys classical music and the arts, and I often include programs about them in our evenings. The music of her youth puts her in the happiest mood. She sings along and even dances to Big Band stuff, things I never witnessed her doing before. When really inspired, she sometimes asks me to dance with her. Neither of our younger selves would ever have imagined this, but we hold hands and swing, carefully, for a few moments, until she needs to sit again and just listen.

So the orchestra struck up Bolero, and my shrinking away from it had just begun, when I heard the Aged R. exclaim, “Oh! Bolero!” I looked over at her, and her face was glowing. “You like Bolero?” “Oh, yes!” she gasped, gazing at the screen, rapt in anticipation, as the music began its strut. Of course, I couldn’t turn it off or leave the room. I was caught.

Susan Scheid quoted recently from John Ashbery’s “The Skaters”: “The balloons/Drift thoughtfully over the land, not exactly commenting on it.” ( It has been a goal of mine to drift through life this way, thoughtfully – possibly commenting – but without making pronouncements. I try to keep in mind Henry James in “The Art of Fiction”: “We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, what the French call his donnée; our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it.” One of the reasons why many refer to James as “The Master” is that a statement like this one, made by him in reference to writing fiction, is so applicable to the art of living, as well. So, while I may not like Bolero, I cannot fault the taste of the Aged R. With her, more than with anyone else, I accept her preferences as part of her world, as she sees it or wishes it to be; my role is supporting, encouraging her in holding on to as much of it as she can. The performance ended as the evening did, exuberantly. The Aged R. had been given another chance to enjoy Bolero, perhaps with glimpses into previous times from long ago, perhaps simply with the sense of happiness that they had left in her. In that evening of our life, it was what James might call her subject; exuberance was what she made of it. My subject was providing the support for her enjoyment of Bolero. I can only hope that she never asks me to dance to it.

Autumn walk


T(a leaf falls)ke Five

Autumn. Every autumn has always reminded me of every other autumn, probably because, for so long, my year began in September with the start of school. Crisp air, turning leaves, and I am there – everywhere I had been before (at yearly intervals), every classroom, every walk to the library, every Saturday passed in the beauty of the leaves. Apples: dipped in caramel, or as hot cider. And, as I moved into adolescence, The Poem, by e.e. cummings, of course, speaking the essence of my autumnal soul:


That started in high school and returned to reunite with me every year since. By the time the new school year had moved from late summer days into fall, I had once again disappointed myself: all my plans and hopes for a new beginning, the childish dream of recreating myself as a new me, had failed. From the start, it was a slowly read/spoken/thought poem, brief as it is, but drawn out by me, full of all the wistfulness, longing, and inward travel that autumn evoked: an ending, as well as a beginning.

Autumn, like other times and other things, went through a faltering period after I left school and began the search for my grown self. My being was so attuned to the seasonal change, that I continued in the old atmosphere for years after the last paper was turned in, the last test taken. With no outer assignment, I unwittingly gave myself one: a yearly reading of my “autumn” novel, May Sarton’s “Kinds of Love.” A creature of habits, I have worn the same scarf – dark green and covered with colored leaves and mushrooms – from October till the end of November. An apple in any form still holds the magic.

But the poem, which hasn’t left me, has somehow managed to alter. Just when it happened, or how, I couldn’t say. It didn’t used to bring a tune with it, though it could have – “Autumn Leaves” would have worked. One day I was raking neighborhood leaves (the back yard, something of a downhill bowl, accumulates a botanist’s delight in the array of leaves which gather from who knows where, but are unrelated to the trees in this yard). Raking leaves, and including a bit of free form movement, unobserved as I believed myself to be, and I heard it. The Poem was in my mind, of course, but now it had an accompaniment: “Take Five!”

How could it be, and how could that work? Yet, it does. Embedded in The Poem I have always seen my autumnal accompanying mood: “loneliness.” Even when I’m not feeling lonely, the season itself can evoke it. After so many years, I finally saw the other word embedded: oneliness. Is it a word? It is at least a state of being, sometimes meaning, for me, that I am one person in the world, sometimes that I am one with the world, the season, the leaves, the raking dance. Suspend disbelief, and judgment, and try it. Just cautiously at first, slowly .. and listen.

What can this mean? For me, not a rejection of times remembered, nor the pleasant habits and associations I have with autumn. They don’t hurt me, and I enjoy them. And friends with a sense of occasion seem to appreciate them, as well. The music that arrived all unexpected seems to tell me, simply, take a break, a breath. Suspend the sense of world and being part of it, or not, and just dance your free form with the leaves. So I do. I take five and watch a leaf fall.

Dave Brubeck original video