Believing Your Own Eyes

WHILE VIEWING THE exhibit, “Giovanni Boldini in Impressionist Paris” at The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, I overheard a woman say, “I know I’m not supposed to like them, but I love Boldini’s paintings!” I kid you not! How did we get to this pass? Just how far have we undermined the confidence of ordinary people to make them think that they cannot view art on their own terms? Unfortunately, although she might have been outspoken about her uncertainty on whether or not she “ought” to like the work of Boldini, she is surely not alone. Many are simply more hesitant to boldly state opinions and views on art — especially on art that they do not quite understand, or “get”. In fact, in the past 25 years or so that I’ve written for ART TIMES, I come across an increasing number of people who have opted out of dropping into art galleries and museums altogether simply because they claim to feel “confused”, if not, at times, downright “intimidated” by the exhibitions they see. So, where did this woman — and many of her counterparts — get the notion that we “ought” not trust our own eyes —  that we “ought” not like or prefer a certain style of art or, conversely, espouse something else? Where else, but having read it somewhere, presumably written by someone who was an “expert” in the business of looking at art! And just who, we might ask, are these so-called “experts”? I recently gave a talk on “The Art of Art Criticism”, a mini-lecture on the insubstantial ground that underlies all art criticism — in brief, that it is an art and not a “science” — and, as I often do in my presentations, made it a point to remind people that we give picture books to children because they do not know how to read — because looking at pictures is an inheritance all humans enjoy. Why have we forgotten that picture-making precedes by centuries word-making? Or that looking at and interpreting images has been going on since mankind became “mankind” — some even arguing that we became homo aestheticus simultaneously with becoming homo sapiens? Why have we lost sight of the fact that looking at images (“art”) is a “built-in” skill we all enjoy? As I emphasize in my lecture on Art Criticism, there simply are no infallible “experts” in the business. Kathleen Arfmann, Executive Director of the Salmagundi Club, NYC, recently directed my attention to an article in the New York Times (March 13, 2010), which featured the “New Guard” of curators that presently hold sway at many of our most prestigious art museums. Hailed by the Times’ writer as “The New Breed”, most are just breaking into their ‘30s, hardly seasoned enough to warrant the title of “expert” in matters of cultured taste. Granted they have an ever-growing audience for their tastes and anything-goes punditry, but comments like “fusty academics” in institutions that are “stuffy” or a “bit sleepy” coming from their “long years” of expertise starkly tell the tale. With such studied mindsets in place at the very dawn of their careers as arbiters of cultural taste, it is not difficult to imagine what they might have in store for us. Who can fault the confused woman up at The Clark Institute who simply did not want to come across as “fusty”, “stuffy”, or “sleepy”?  Since Boldini is anything but “cutting edge” it would be gauche — or even worse, “old-fashioned” — to admire his work, would it not? But, I wanted to shout out to this woman, “Please! Please! Enjoy the work! Trust your own sensibilities. It’s OK to be a bit fusty now and then! Really it is!” Of course, this squarely plumps me into one of those “sleepy” and “stuffy” categories…but then I am that. Still, I was 30 once — knew infinitely more than I know now — so who am I to point a finger? Of course there are new trends, new tastes, new things to engage the mind. And our institutions are correct to allow for these new points of view to be encouraged, touted, even supported. But is it necessary to peremptorily invalidate the past as “fusty”, “sleepy” or “stuffy”? Ought we make it necessary for viewers to be embarrassed by their choices? I offer a resounding NO! And let’s hope that poor woman regains her birthright of confidently looking at pictures once again. Let’s also hope that, as they grow into their responsibilities, these curators with their ready-made categories will eventually recognize that great art is timeless and that opinions, fads, and trends are only of their times, relevant only as long as the current tastes prevail.

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2 Responses to Believing Your Own Eyes

  1. Francine L. Trevens says:

    I especially loved this piece on Boldini at the Sterling and Francine Clark museum, one of my favorite places. People throughout our country are waiting to be told what to think. Its a terrifying thought. Perhaps I love this museum because when we were there over 40 years ago my then three year old. looking to the far end of the museum exclaimed, “Mommy, that lady is showing her tushy,” about a nude painting. That three year old later became a sculptor – but not of nudes!

  2. Dawn Lille says:

    One place to start confronting the “fads” is with young students and one approach is to relate the “oldies” to the latest. Comparisons work and often an appreciation of the historical emerges. Given time the best art often wins.

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