Thursday, February 6, 2014

Learning About Art

In the Bar
I remember sitting in the student bar with a friend and an art major. The friend said, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”

The art student leaned forward to say heatedly, “And you like what you know!”

My friend was like me: a little baffled by art, a little feeling inferior, and with a chip on his shoulder. As for the artist’s reply, I am slowly coming to see that there are many realities out there, not just the world I perceive, and that art can make me uncomfortable when it shows me a world—or an art piece—different from what I know.

A very crude example, which barely hints at what I mean: A criminal may think all of us are criminals, a prostitute may think all marriage is prostitution, a pacifist may think we are all sheep—and I, not being among their little peer groups, would react with distress to any art that suggested their views. Please don’t show me a painting of a wholesome 1950’s housewife and mother, with lingerie peeping out, robbing a bank. If you do then I will escape into saying it’s a joke. As for the 1950’s—my favorite decade—there are movies made in our century, set in that decade, that simply wouldn’t work had they been created back then: The people would have found the shows to NOT be the sort of art they know they like.

Like my friend that day, I realized I too didn’t know much about art, and I felt I was missing out on something, like the feeling I get around playoff season. A year or more later, I remember going to an art gallery and seeing two abstract shiny bird sculptures by the same artist: One sculpture was big, and one small. I liked the smaller one best, and I was so pleased with myself when I checked price tags and found the smaller one had been valued more. That day I hovered near other groups of art browsers, listening to overhear if I could pick something up from their conversations.

In a Class
Eventually I got my act together: I took the plunge by registering for a night class in “history of art.” In a class of mainly interior design students, I caught the second (winter) semester, covering the time from the invention of modern art up to the present. I said, “Wow.” Previously, a few university students in various majors had told me that art history was their favorite class, but I had mostly thought this was because they hadn’t been ready to learn history back in high school. My mistake. It was the art they liked, not the fleeting references to what was going on in the world around the art.

I would recommend the class to anyone: At a basic level, I learned things designers and women know, such as how the eye (my teacher used a laser pen) travels about the “picture plain,” and how shapes and colors create tension. In theory, a classic painting holds together like a classic poem, so that if you moved even one shrub you would change everything. At another level, I learned some landmarks to navigate the field of art history; soon I acquired the same vocabulary as successful businessmen and their wives who could rattle off the names of dead artists. I started to realize why careful self-made millionaires would fork out for fine art. For me, it was like studying classic literature or music and suddenly thinking: “Hey, now I know what all the fuss is about! No wonder this stuff is classic!” I joined in with those of similar education, and more: I felt I was now among the ages, among lively peers long dead.

And while I appreciate photographic realism, I have come to appreciate the answer to the question: Is modern art a hoax? …No. And those huge price tags for the “crazy stuff” our public gallery forks out for? I am reminded of a former hockey goalie, Ken Dryden, when asked why NHL salaries are so high. He said he couldn’t defend it, but he could explain it: Market value.

I passed the course… and just recently I have realized something: I don’t even know yet how little I know, only that I have a long way to go to learn about appreciating art.

If we in this society don’t really know about art then maybe it’s partly because we don’t truly want to encounter new worlds and new ways of perceiving… and maybe it’s partly because it takes time. No instant gratification. You only get out what you put into it, of course, and many folks just won’t stop to smell the roses. My art history teacher would often just keep a slide up on the screen as she talked, and then point out how keeping it there had allowed us to increase our appreciation. Yes. As for being willing to see: As the detective said, many of us look and don’t notice. I found this out the day I had to write dialogue for a college assignment: I had been a book lover for years, yet I still didn’t know how to punctuate dialogue—I had to grab under my bed for a Louis L’amour western and then for the first time truly see.

In a Book
A lover of westerns, or a tourist from Europe, would love to be in the little “one four-way stop” town of Black Diamond on an early Saturday morning. There you can see ranchers, husbands and wives, wearing full cowboy regalia, with their horses in trailers outside, having their morning coffee. (That specific cafĂ© has closed; I don’t know where they go now) I was in Black Diamond (coal) last weekend. The town is on the route to the Alaskan highway, and so there is enough traffic to support artsy stores. In Blue Rock Gallery I found a slim blue book that could change my life, if I let it. Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery by Jeanette Winterson.

It turns out Winterson will spend an afternoon at a gallery visiting one or two pieces. This is hard for me to imagine, just yet. As for art allowing us to see, she approaches the idea from many angles, making a case for “new seeing,” and, at the same time, a case for the idea that we of this society are just too unwilling to see. This view I can somewhat imagine, just from knowing myself, and it’s not a comforting thought. At least I’m willing to learn, someday.

The concept of taking enough time also applies to language arts. Of literature, Winterson writes,
“…Much of the delight everyone gets from radio adaptations of classics is a straightforward delight in pace. The actors read much more slowly than the eye passes, especially the eye habituated to scanning the daily papers and skipping through magazines. It is just not possible to read literature quickly. Neither poetry nor poetic fiction will respond to being rushed.

…Art, in its making and in its enjoying, demands long tracts of time. Books, like cats, do not wear watches.”
In my Life
I am slowly coming to grasp that, among my fellow Internet users, it is maybe the majority, and not the minority, who will skim instead of reading. Such a pity—do they even guess what they’re missing? If you skim, you’re dim. As former Microsoft manager Scott Berkun has pointed out, you never find a tweet to say, “I’ve found a literary short story on the web.” No, nor a painting. But you will find tweets for a photo of a dog wearing a hat. Or laugh-out-loud (LOL) cats.

Shortly before Christmas I drove south across the plains to the next city, Lethbridge, about two hours away. This was because Olivia, a young lady who works at my favorite art gallery, (the Stephen Lowe) had raved to me about an exhibit at the SAAG. (Southern Alberta Art Gallery) Well. When next I saw her I had to sheepishly admit I hadn’t liked it. “There wasn’t a single piece I would want to hang up in my home.” Olivia kindly took the trouble to explain the exhibit was intended for stuff you wouldn’t put in your home. Her private gallery sells pretty; the public exhibit was for offering new ways of seeing. Besides thanking her, all I could say was, “Oh.”

Today I feel fine not knowing what I will like some day. Olivia doesn’t judge me; it’s the journey that counts. And I’m excitedly looking forward to someday knowing, at last, how little I know.

Sean Crawford
In artistic cowboy country
~I liked the 2002 movie Far From Heaven, starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert and Viola Davis. Set in the 1950’s, it comes complete with 1950’s-style movie titles, sets and musical score, yet I know it could never have made a profit in the fifties. Critic Roger Ebert wrote “Because the film deliberately lacks irony, it has a dramatic impact; it plays like a powerful 1957 drama we’ve somehow never seen before.”

~ The students in the bar were the ones in my essay, Is it Art? Archived January 2013, as a follow-up to Groovy and Graffiti, in the same month.

~As for my belief in taking time instead of skimming, one of my more popular essays, going by hit count, is one where I give up on hurried folks who want their links on a silver platter, No Links is Good Links, archived July 2012—of course I won’t link to it, since my archives are accessible.

~Someday I want to read Winterson’s memoir/novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, after seeing part of the movie version at university.

~As for viewing different realities, some day I will re-read the satire Gravy Planet (aka The Space Merchants) about a planet controlled by business interests. Meanwhile, when Winterton wrote in the chapter/essay Imagination and Reality, that we live in a “money culture” I didn’t dismiss her reality as “too artsy” or “leftist.” No, because while the original Star Trek could feature a planet controlled by organized crime, A Piece of the Action, and allude to a planet controlled by women, (the episode where they had put in for repairs and now found all their computers given a female voice) the “show bible” made it clear, according to a screenwriter, that no planet was to be controlled by business.


  1. "If you skim, you're dim". I had a bit of a chuckle when I read this. This phrase could be printed on a t-shirt. I've been very lucky to travel to cities that are known for great Art. I've been to the Louvre, the Hermitage and the Glenbow.

    Let's just say that the Louvre and the Hermitage are really "wow".

  2. Wow, I've been to the Glenbow too—such a small world. I've just been to London where there are two modern art galleries, one, the Tate, on the south side of the millennial bridge and one, S-- House, on the North side of the Waterloo bridge. And I was told by a Brit on the flight back that I missed an even better gallery, but I forget the name.

    I found a delightful store near the British museum that is on the web called Its All Greek. What I bought was Ancient but looked like modern surrealist art! Called meditation, lots of curves.

    So much art, so little time. At least I saw the big places in inner London on the tourists map. Instead of taking my pound notes to exchange at the bank, I am keeping notes: So I will go back again!

  3. I've been to a few more museums and in the past, I was at the Tate Modern as well. That same one! Talk about small world, eh? (since you've been in the UK, it's time to hear some Canuck again)

    There's a certain serenity when strolling around an art gallery. Don't you think? Welcome back!

  4. My trip was heavily poetry related, and I wrote, but I am under instructions from my sensei not to tell the world yet. My poetry manuscript now has a completion date of July. That's both scary and fun.

    I like galleries and they may be serene now, I'm not sure, but I still worry because once I was struck by survivor guilt or something and had to leave quickly.

    You are the first one to welcome me back. This morning I am wide awake too early, and impatient to get to my Friday Freefall writing group. There I will get lots of "welcome backs."