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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!


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.

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“Not waving but drowning”

I have not written a blog before and can hardly be said to be writing one now. But I signed in to for the respite of reading other people’s blogs, and it hardly seems fair to make comments and just disappear, not showing myself. So here I am, but for the present I am only interested in reading blogs, while lacking anything to say.

I hear Stevie Smith’s words in my head, “not waving but drowning,” though when they come out of my mouth, they sound like, “not writing but listening.”