Friday, April 9, 2010

Art and Crichton

My friend Christina Chan was invited to an art gallery tour and she took me along as her guest.

Christina, along with all her fellow volunteers at the Science Centre, was invited to a place also staffed by volunteers: The Art Gallery of Calgary, the one with the unobtrusive doorway onto the pedestrian mall. The gallery was booked for us on a Saturday afternoon. She knows I collect art; before we walked down to the gallery I admitted that when it comes to art, I only know a little bit. I added, "Hey, is it OK if I pretend I know more than I do... and tell you stuff about the pieces we see? I'd like to sound important." My friend, knowing full well I can't really pull off sounding pompous, agreed to let me try. We had a good time.

The actual pieces we saw that day, an exhibition of extremely creative Canadian portraits, I won't describe here - maybe some other time.

The staff gave us a nice tour, main floor and basement, and then we went up to the top floor for some fine cheese and crackers. One of the tidbits we enjoyed was, in Christina's words, "savory." The word belongs to categories like sour and sweet: My friend has quite an "educated palate." Keep your on Christina and her palate for savoring that bit - we'll get back to it...

... This tour was in mid-February. In early March articles appeared - in an art magazine and the LA Times - regarding an estate sale of one hundred splendid pieces belonging to the late Michael Crichton - I still miss him. There would be a showing in LA in April, and then an auction in New York in May. I'm not surprised to find that Michael had excellent taste, and very fine pieces. I wish I could be there for the auction.

What strikes me is how incongruous it must seem that a man like Crichton could collect art. I have to smile at imagining how none of the sides of this multi-sided fellow match up with our conception of art lovers.

Imagine a successful Hollywood director and capitalist, creator of ER, doing hasty business in a field where producers are so rushed they apparently all need "assistants to" - as you can see in the film credits - yet Crichton found time for art.... Imagine a successful writer and bookworm, an idealist, a man who insists on reading every page of those really thick United Nations global warming reports, yet who also has time for art.... Imagine a man in a white lab coat, with a medical degree, a man who knows all about Andromeda strains and Jurassic DNA, a man who spends his days amongst his nerdy beakers and Bunsen burners, yet who goes home to... art.

So yes, art is cool. And no, modern art is not a hoax. (Oh!, if only you could see those creative portraits!)

Yet only a few years back a respected tabloid columnist wrote that modern art was indeed a hoax, a conspiracy rather, one that was continuing to fool all the businessmen and their wives. The journalist was seething at how our city museum had bought a giant sized, ceiling to floor, super-expensive piece that looked just too simplistic. I can only answer it was expensive the same way national hockey goalies are too expensive: the market sets the price. The museum could have instantly re-sold it on the open market for a tidy profit, to be sure. The market, fumed the columnist, must be hoaxed.

Being a former university reporter myself, it seems to me that part of the reason why a journalist, who is usually a curious avid reader, doesn't know about art is simple: Not only does society not know about art,  neither do the characters in the novels on a journalist's shelves. For example, a detective might interview someone in a garden, or talk to character just coming out of her garden, but not while in a picure gallery. The body might in the conservatory, or the library, but not in a gallery. In a first person novel, such as a detective or spy story, someone like Travis Mcgee or Matt Helm might comment on the local real estate conspiracy, clothing fashion or the curious television habits of the locals, but he won't ever draw someone's attention to a wall painting.

In all of Crichton's novels I can't recall any art collectors at all. In the works of Robert Heinlein I can recall only two, and in each story the act of collecting was vital to explaining a character and advancing the plot. And so readers could easily hold the scenario that practical people don't care for art. This goes along with the scenario that people on the frontier preferred to be uncultured, not sissy, and preferred as well to be strong and silent. In reality? They loved to hear the oratory of Abraham Lincoln, right from when he was a young farm laborer, and if only the frontiersmen had the time and coin, then they craved traveling shows the way the Indians craved the color red. In more settled times every prairie farmhouse would have its pretty little parlor, for the grace of beauty, while the real living was done in the big warm kitchen.

Forget any fears of being a sissy: As a young corporal I once spent an afternoon at a mess table with some rough and tough middle aged sergeants from Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. (long story) I had to smile as these married guys discussed hotel art shows and collecting persian rugs. (As does the sergeant in the film Gardens of Stone.) Incidentally, among my tough army peers I had a reputation for smiling a lot, and no one thought that was sissy, either.

Today, if a young man has no coins then I think he simply won't window shop: meanwhile he flips through catalogues just as sightlessly as when his eyes glaze past the sight of a-decade-older-than-me fashionably dressed pretty ladies. (Perhaps French lads have more sense.) Nor does he "window shop" art.

Heinlein once wrote of an impoverished Botany Bay style colony. In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress there is a nice old character named Professor de la Paz, the only professor beyond the earth's orbit. He is a shabby man in political exile who ekes out a living on the lunar frontier teaching practical mathematics, since none of his accademic knowledge, such as sociology and revolutionary theory, is useful. (Not until... ) One chapter ends with him pointing to some food on the hero's table, and innocently mislabeling it... for it has been many years since he could afford real food. A poignant scene.

Which reminds me of Christina learning to discern "savory," which I'll soon be getting back to... In the harsh world of Moon there are no personal computers, only a mainframe named Mike, but here on earth, fortunately for us, there are personal computers in every public library. For centuries fine personal art was only for the rich, but not today.  At last we have access to unprecedented laser technology. I can have a classic Raphael at the touch of a button. For my hand-made original oil painting, which I took home this winter, I needed some really big bucks, but for classic prints? Not so much. No need, not now, for a poor young man's eyes to glaze past art. The art gallery tour with Christina gave me a chance to further train my eye; Christina went home to further train her palate.

To volunteer to train your eye and tongue is something people of all walks of life can do: Hollywood businessmen, bookworms, biologists... everybody.

Art is cool.

Sean Crawford
Where my home is my gallery,
Spring 2010

~Professor De la Paz collected a pretty brass cannon in my essay of that name of December 2010.

~The reason the ancient Greeks, going beyond just the three R's, were perfectly correct to teach their children art is imperfectly explained in my essay Art and Big Brother of June 2010.

~Just as a rock music lover eventually goes beyond enjoying "just sound" to simultaneously liking a guitarist's finger work and rebellion, so too may an art lover like to go beyond seeing just perspective to seeing the "picture plane" and 3-D raised brush stokes and knowing of the artist: my original oil offers me an experience a print could never give.

~I once sold my Renoir print to buy another print of the same piece but with much better skin tones and background colors: People don't know, until they go to a museum,  how prints and pictures in art textbooks can be very unfaithful to the original.

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