This has been a week for visual art. I began by answering an e-mail from Katie- actually, her rough draft of an essay on public art. She compared her experiences passing by Strawberry Fields (a small park in memory of John Lennon) with seeing the Central Park statue of Daniel Webster.
Strawberry Fields has a famous mosaic:
And the statue of Daniel Webster is, well, a big bronze statue:
Katie noted that Strawberry Fields is still venerated- particularly on John Lennon's birthday and anniversaries of other significant days- while Daniel Webster is largely ignored. While not ignoring the differences in people's knowledge of Lennon and Webster, Katie talked about the different ways their creators saw public art. The former is accessible, comfortable, at ground level, and provides a place where the congregating of people is as essential as the mosaic itself. The latter sits on a high pedestal near a busy street, discouraging people from coming near; with little attempt to fit in with the surrounding landscape, the statue "alienated not only the people who would happen to walk by, but also the very terrain that encompassed it". Katie also quotes some sources about the nature of public space and belonging, and of course she wrote a lot more, but I think this was the main contrast.
As she wanted, I wrote back a few pages on how I saw the topic. I compared Strawberry Fields and Daniel Webster with a third public work of art: the Lincoln Memorial. It is also a colossal statue, but remains a moving and celebrated icon. I theorized, among other things, that more important than the number of people who have heard of these public figures is the connection we have to each of them- that good art taps into the connections and allusions that the viewer already possesses. The average person has nothing to go on about Daniel Webster: no stories (although he did much), no memorable words (although he was a better orator than Lincoln). Strawberry Fields taps into the spectator's memories of all the songs, to create emotion out of the word "Imagine". The Lincoln Memorial taps into our knowledge of the Gettysburg Address (even today, most people recognize phrases like "Fourscore and seven years ago..." or "the government of the people, by the people, for the people").
The essay started me thinking more about visual art and the reasons why I often don't get anything from it. It occurred to me for the first time that the Emperor really does have new clothes, that there must be something to a well-regarded piece of abstract art, that it must be making references that I don't catch. An artist or an art critic develops ways of looking at paintings different from my casual appreciation, and it is to these ways of seeing that the artist speaks. I'm as lost to some of those as I am to the fine symbolism of Renaissance art (in which a background nightingale doesn't represent a bird, but the legend of Philomela and the themes it contains).
I soon had the opportunity to test this insight, when Alice and I went up to the Art Institute of Chicago on Tuesday. Her mother has worked in public art for years, so Alice has grown up immersed in visual art. She was a savvy guide through the Impressionists, Cubists and Modernists, patiently putting up with my endless questions. I felt I started catching the games that many artists played with the act of perception, our human need to interpret lines and hues as a representation of some three-dimensional object.
Most of my insights I can't explain in words- not yet, or perhaps not at all. After all, if the truth behind a painting could be captured in an essay, why paint?