Monday, June 18, 2007

The Popularizers

Another blogger was kind enough to send me a link to (a great site I hadn't known before) that translates arts articles from other languages into English. That might explain why the article I read struck me as a little disjointed, but it was a very eye-opening read all the same. Essentially it argues that Art has become the new, all-encompassing "It" :

Art is the theme of the hour. You can't get around it. [...] Clearly, this is not only true for unmitigated consumerism and lifestyle, but also for societal or political engagement. Even demonstrators at the G-8 summit don't - or don't wish to - avoid art. "Art goes Heiligendamm" (feature) or "BALANCE!" is the name of the project in which politics becomes aesthetic, and aesthetics becomes political. The greater good therein may not be really clear. But this only underscores the true role of art. Art is needed because - according to popular consensus - only those who bring art into play are truly up-to-date.
This idea occurred to me again this morning while reading in The New York Times of the new PBS art series debuting tonight:

There was a time, not so long ago, when “popularizer” was a derogatory term used by academics to dismiss the popularity of a more successful colleague.

When Robert Graves wrote “I, Claudius,” many classicists sneered. Even Kenneth Clark, the art historian who in 1969 wrote and presented “Civilisation,” the BBC’s hugely successful survey of Western art, was mocked in some circles as a sellout.

That fusty line between art and entertainment faded long ago. Stephen W. Hawking, the British physicist, starred in his own series on public television about the origins of the universe without any damage to his reputation. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists line up to appear on “Oprah.” So it’s not surprising that Simon Schama, a Columbia University professor, is turning into the Bob Barker of art criticism, a genial television host who excitedly invites viewers to come on down to high culture.

In “
Simon Schama’s Power of Art,” a series that begins tonight on PBS, Mr. Schama walks through wheat fields that van Gogh painted and strolls beaches where Picasso quarreled with his first wife, Olga. Most documentary-style series nowadays include re-enactments, but this one also offers a re-enactment of the narrator as a young man. In the final segment on Mark Rothko, an actor with long hair and mod glasses recreates the moment when Mr. Schama strolled through the Tate Gallery in London and first spied that artist’s murals in 1971.
Add these two general ideas to the debate last week about whether Paul Potts was really singing "opera," though, and things get rather complicated in my Monday morning mind. At what point, I began to wonder, does popularizing something actually make it less accessible to the public? At what point does it make its greater essence less accessible? If all you take away from Guernica, because it was offered to you on a spoon, is the anecdote below...

Picasso’s tale begins in his Paris studio in 1941, with the image of jackboots stomping up a staircase. Mr. Schama recounts the story, perhaps apocryphal, of a Nazi who barged in and poked around, picking up a postcard-size reproduction of “Guernica.”

The German officer said, “Did you do this?” Picasso replied, “Oh, no, you did.”
you might feel you get it...enough, at least (after all, isn't art appreciation really just for dinner party stories? Once you have enough under your belt to add something clever to the conversation, can't you move on to easier pursuits?)...but the motivation to revisit it (to really try and understand what all the fuss is about) might be diminished, no?

OK, so that's perhaps too jaded and implies I'm not above social pressure to lead folks to art appreciation, which I can't endorse, in all honesty. But the hope in my muddled thinking here would be that such motivation might lead one not only to revisit a work, but actually, eventually to have a meaningful experience with it on one's own.

Which brings me full circle here. There's so much competing for our attention these days, maybe the Popularizers are needed. Gone are the times when those with too much time on their hands could leisurely stroll the museums for hours, hoping for epiphanies.

Still, I can't help but wonder whether one of the best parts of experiencing art isn't indeed the initial struggle for comprehension, the confusion, the mystery...whether, as the Times calls it "[t]hat fusty line between art and entertainment" doesn't serve some good we won't quite recognize until it's gone. I'm looking forward to Mr. Schama's series, but I wonder how I'd feel about the works in question had his program been my first introduction to them, rather than some heavy book I schlepped home on my bicycle from the library as a kid. With no guidance but the text (which I rarely read), those images were beyond wondrous to me. But more than that, they were mine to interpret/struggle with without any entertainment filters. They were work, but work I relished.

I honestly don't know where I'm going with this, so I'll cut it short...consider this a work in progress.

Labels: Art


Blogger Henry said...

Art is an elephant examined by multiple audiences in different states of blindness.

6/18/2007 11:26:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Art has become the new, all-encompassing "It"

Art has become the new God, and the new Love. It's become a word that means everything and nothing.

you might feel you get it...enough, at least (after all, isn't art appreciation really just for dinner party stories?

I remember a story I once heard about Einstein. He was at a dinner party out here in Pasadena, and was talking with a young undergraduate who asked "So, Dr. Einstein, what do you do?" He said "I'm engaged in the study of physics," to which she replied "Oh, I studied that last semester."

6/18/2007 11:54:00 AM  
Anonymous ml said...

Another story: Picasso was surrounded by adoring fans. Someone in the group asked, isn't it so wonderful that so many people understand you now? And Picasso said in the beginning very few understood him and nothing has changed.

A related thought: (I read it somewhere) a critic was asked why American art blossomed after World War II. He said partly it was because so many top European artists lived here to escape the Nazis and partly it was because America had discovered paint by numbers and thousands of Americans who had never been interested in art before suddenly became aware of art, how difficult even the easiest form of art was.

If we are fortunate, the popularizers will function like paint by numbers.

6/18/2007 02:14:00 PM  
Anonymous edith said...

As a working class immigrant kid growing up in Vancouver, I had never been in an art gallery, I had never seen any art other than the awesomely scary Emily Carr prints on the halls of my school, Emily Carr Elementary. Then I saw "Dog of Flanders" -- the 60's version, not the doggie doo remake -- and in it, the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens! That's all it took. Praise the popularizers!

6/18/2007 10:33:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

i watched some of the show (they had Van gogh and picasso back to back.

By the time picasso was banging his first mistress it was time to change the channel.

Guess I learned my lesson.

6/19/2007 12:56:00 AM  
Blogger aurix said...

speaking of paul potts, he just won the competition (

6/19/2007 01:25:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

A related thought: (I read it somewhere) a critic was asked why American art blossomed after World War II...partly it was because America had discovered paint by numbers and thousands of Americans...suddenly became aware of art...

Actually it's an interesting story, depending on whose account you accept. For some great reading check out How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art by Serge Guilbaut.

6/19/2007 08:36:00 AM  
Blogger Houdini said...

I understand where you going, I think?

Art is a mystery, good art is - and it demands our full attention, whereas entertainment can easily be mixed with eating popcorn. If you don't get it at first, there's a rerun.

When looking at art, it's your life running by.

6/27/2007 07:19:00 PM  

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