Not an original question, but one I have been asking a lot lately — AGAIN.
Someone very dear to me has been, for the last year and a half, in the gruelling process of qualifying to be a Docent at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. And I do mean gruelling — day long classes most Saturdays for nine months, and then torcherous research to develop each specialized tour, and finally, the nerve-wracking process of “qualifying” for each tour category — Introduction to Western Art, East Building Tour (20th century art), and on and on.
And so, because my friend has her big test for the East Building tour very soon, I agreed to be her test subject on President’s Day. Okay, my primary goal was to visit the Pompeii exhibition and enjoy the Italian buffet lunch in the Garden Court restaurant, but with mind and eyes wide-open, I followed her to the Gallery to experience the “wonders” of 20th century art.
Before I go any further, I should clearly state that it has always been my belief that the progress of the visual arts ended with the early Impressionists. But my friend has been my witness through many years of recitals, operas, and other performances, and therefore, I, as good and faithful companion, went off to be educated .
And so my friend presented me with a wonderful and detailed journey through the works of Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi, Duschamp and others meant to inspire; I heard about and saw for myself the works supposed to suggest man embracing the ever-increasing pace of change that is our modern culture. I was interested to hear why Picasso turned women into cubes and why the art world considers a window frame with leather-covered glass a work of art. And I was perplexed to hear about the queues of people that come during the Lenten season to stare for hours at Barnett Newman’s “Stations of the Cross” narrative series, which, I must confess, to me looks like a lot of nearly blank canvases with a couple of lines on each.
It was all very interesting; I feel like a learned a lot. But my conclusion was , as it always has been — NONE OF THIS IS ART.
In the process of making changes in my life, I frequently think about this question: What is art and why do we as humans feel compelled to make it? I thought about this a lot after the 9/11 attacks, as I was in graduate music school at the time. And my conclusion at the time remains
I’m sure that my thoughts are neither original n or earth-shattering. For me, art that simply documents the narcissism of modern society, portraying the human alienation that is all too common, well — I think by now you know my opinion. But more importantly to me, I don’t believe that a sculpture, a painting, a piece of music, ANYTHING, is art if it must be explained to the receiver to make it interesting.
I once read a book that described the different ways in which people learn, and I found out from that book that I am what education experts would call a “kinesthetic” — I have to feel something in order to experience it. I would describe a book that is really reaching me as a book that is “about to make my head explode”, a lecture or sermon that really gets to me as “rearranging my molecules”, a piece of music that moves me as “taking my breath away”. Because that is truly the way I experience all of these things.
But what I know most about the answer to the question “is it really art” is this — our relationship to art is very much like our relationship to God — a personal, private experience that no scholar or friend can define for us.
After all, there are two participants (at least, in the artistic act) — the creator and the receiver. To me, the best art satisfies both. But for me, not here, not this “art”.
So, with my deepest apologies to all of those who consider the works in the East Building to be great art of the 20th century — I beg to disagree.