One of the reasons that I really liked Ben Lerner’s Leaving Atocha Station is that in the very first page he goes and stands in front of a painting at the Prado and thinks: “I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew.”
In general, I am not a highbrow consumer of art. I have painstakingly, over a long period of time, gained an appreciation (and even a preference) for highbrow literature, but it wasn’t something that came naturally to me. And in terms of the other arts, I am hopeless. I’ve been to a number of the world’s greatest art museums: the Prado; the Reyna Sofia; some of those ones in New York, I guess…. After I graduated college, I’d sometimes pop over to the National Gallery of Art just to sit in front of paintings and ponder the world’s most imponderable question: “When I look at this painting, am I supposed to feel emotions? Or am I just supposed to intellectually appreciate that it was probably quite difficult to create this image?”
I’ve had emotional reactions to works of visual art, but I can tally them up. During AP Art History in high school, we looked at a photo of Camille Claudel’s sculpture The Waltz and I actually thought, “There is something very free in this sculpture.” For years, I’ve looked, with no success, for a reproduction (the actual sculpture is itself quite small) that I could purchase and have in my own home.
Then, years after that, this Gustave Klimt painting, “A Portrait of Adele Block-Baeur I” set a record for being the most expensive painting to be sold at auction (for $135 million). And when I looked at its picture in the newspaper, I thought, “Hmm…that is actually a very beautiful painting. I enjoy looking at that. I envy the person who bought this.”
Since then, there’ve been a few works that made me feel emotions: mostly the paintings of Renoir and Lucian Freud and one painting in (I think) the Prado that was of this forest except it wasn’t really a forest, it was just a bunch of green lines in a vaguely triangular shape. And each time, I’ve felt the same thwarted sense of longing.
I think the problem is that we pretend an ideal is the best place to look at a painting, and it’s not. There are too many people around you in a museum. You can’t form a relationship with a painting when there are a bunch of other jerks around. And, secondly, when you see a painting you like, you want to look at it for a very long time. But in a museum, you always feel like you can’t, because there are too many other paintings around. Paintings–no matter how great–are diminished when they’re part of a crowd. This is yet another example of the way in which creating a culture of mass-market “art appreciation” actually decreases true appreciation of art.
The ideal way to look at a painting is in your house, while it hangs on your own wall. But, since I obviously can’t afford to buy a Klimt, if I wanted to look at a painting in that way, I’d need to go out and buy one. That’s absolutely doable, obviously, but it requires a tremendous boldness. It’s one thing for me to say that I enjoy looking at the most expensive painting in the world. And it’s another thing to say that I like looking at a painting that I bought for $200 from some Maryland College Institute of Art (MICA) student. I’d need to have a lot of confidence in my taste before I could do something like that.
And that kind of taste can only come from looking at paintings at museums. So we come full circle.
Well, fooey. I’ll just have to wait until I make a few million dollars, and then I’ll buy one of this guy’s paintings.
Oh yeah, that was the impetus behind this blog post. Someone posted this article and I looked at the titular painting and thought, “That’s actually a pretty beautiful painting. I wish that I owned that.”
Then I looked up the artist, Giovanni Boldini, and realized that I was already familiar with at least one of his paintings! I’ve always like this painting of Robert de Montiesque that adorned one of my Proust volumes (it’s a portrait of the real-life person who was, supposedly, the impetus for Baron de Charlus), but I’d never bothered to figure out who painted it. Anyway, when I went and looked at Boldini’s paintings, I realized that I liked them very much. It made me sad. I will never possess these paintings. The closest I will ever come to them is as images on the computer screen. Or, at most, a few minutes of viewing if I ever visit a museum that has one of them. I don’t know. It’s good that I don’t like art that much. I don’t know how art-lovers manage. If you love music or literature or film, then you can possess what you love. People who love the visual arts are never able to do that.