Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Awkward Encounter Called Art Appreciation (no. 5)

 by Larry Witham

Novels in Which Not Everyone Likes Art

MOST PEOPLE ENJOY a good painting. Yet art appreciation is not as simple as it sounds. An artwork might evoke just a passing glance. At other times, it might seem absurd, entirely irrelevant to people outside that art-world bubble.
            A good many novelists have noticed this fact. They have used the awkward side of art appreciation to add charm to a story. It’s also a great way to poke fun at the extremes of seeing in works of art more than is really there, objectively speaking.
            Take David Lipsky’s coming-of-age novel, The Art Fair (1996). Single mom Joan Freeley is ambitiously climbing up in the New York art scene. She makes large, abstract, color stain paintings. It’s a style modeled after her idol and rival, cutting-edge painter Celia. Now mom’s career is crumbling, but she still takes her teenage son Richard—the narrator of the story—to yet another gallery “opening” featuring Celia.
            As Richard glances at the paintings, he doesn’t get what all the art aficionados see in them after intense periods of looking.
            Says his mom, “Try to really look.”
            “I am looking,” Richard retorts.
            What he mainly notices is that the titles have nothing to do with the paintings, and prices range from $16,000 to $20,000. This is the first art gallery “opening” party Richard goes to with his mom. For the rest of the novel he bolsters her sliding morale—as a has-been artist—from one opening party to another.
            This contrast between people who “do get” and “don’t get” art appears in three other interesting novels.
            In Jeff Vande Zande’s Landscape with Fragmented Figures (2009), brothers Ray and Sammy Casper are forced to live with each other in working class upper Michigan after their father died. Sammy is an unemployed plant worker and heavy drinker; Ray a painter and art professor on a downward slope. His artist girlfriend left him because he lost “vision” in his art. In other words, Ray had regressed into painting nice pictures to sell to corporation lobbies, while she was radical, displaying as art the spattered drop cloths of the house-painter proletariat.
            Brother Sammy can’t understand the big deal about Ray’s late unhappiness over art. “What’s your big beef?” he asks.
            Ray: “I can’t explain it, really. It’s just with my art.”
            Sammy notes that Ray knows how to paint stuff pretty good. Ray says that’s not enough. He grabs a picture of Renoir’s Luncheon at the Boating Party and says to Sammy: “This is art. This has vision.”
            Sammy studied the painting. He got two more beers, lit a cigarette and says, “It looks like a bunch of a--holes having lunch. . . . I mean, it’s good. I sure as hell couldn’t do it.” Ray tries to make Sammy see how Renoir reveals human relations. Sammy says, “I don’t know. I guess.”
            Their conversation descends into an argument about who has real problems in life. It sure doesn’t seem to Sammy that a painter losing artistic vision is much compared to losing jobs, spouses, and a place to live. “Most people I know have real problems,” Sammy says. “Sounds to me like you’re just dreaming s--t up to worry about.”
            Art appreciation also comes hard to the husband narrator of David Nicholls’s witty novel, US, which tells the story of the Petersen family of London. They are taking a Grand Tour of Europe’s art museums before the son goes off to college. The wife has just told her boring husband Douglas, a biochemist, that she is leaving him. As former art student and painter, she yearns for the creative, fancy-free days of her youth. First, though, the tottering family will take the trip—and see if it might change things.
            At the Louvre, Douglas explains why he doesn’t get art the way his wife does: “My art appreciation is almost on par with my French,” he says. “Despite all my best efforts my responses seem to me fundamentally shallow.”
            In portraiture he likes people he can recognize: “Look, it’s Uncle Tony.” In realist works he looks for detail: “Look at the eyelashes!” And in abstract art he goes for his favorite colors: “‘I love the blue’—as if the works of Rothko and Mondrian were little more than immense paint charts.” Indeed, his concept of beauty is shaped by the microbes he studies in the laboratory.
            On reaching one painting by the Italian Renaissance humorist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Douglas declares to his son, “Look, Albie, his face is made up of fruits and vegetables.” For this insult to Albie’s intelligence, the father believes he deserves “the award for Most Banal Remark Ever Made in an Art Gallery.” Going to an art museum is tiring, he finds out. It’s partly because of “the mental exertion of wondering what to say.”
            The police in crime novels also face their share of difficult art appreciation. They look at paintings to ferret out clues or evidence. A great scene like this crops up in Peter Heller’s artist-noir-Southwest novel, The Painter (2015). Jim Stegner is a Postimpressionist painter living in a cabin studio in rural Colorado. For a second time, he’s in trouble with the law. Now he’s killed a man with a rock. Two deputies arrive and notice a big painting he’s been working on.
            “Can I take a look at it?” asks the older deputy. His smile becomes a “big grin” at the title: Ocean of Women. A good many females and one male swim in the nebulous, watery scene on the canvas.
            The young deputy is adjusting to the culture shock, according to Stegner’s first person narration: “The kid stood uneasily before the easel, his hand on his holstered gun, blinking. I could tell he wanted to laugh, maybe the first time he’d seen an original painting ever, one that wasn’t painted by an aunt that had taken a How to Paint a Western Landscape by Numbers class and hung it in the den next to the flat screen, . . .” Still, the kid deputy “glanced at his mentor and relaxed, twitched a smile, studied the painting, dove into it, couldn’t help himself, his eyes roved from woman to woman wondering maybe how many the swimmer could f— and still tread water.”
            Then the senior cop picks up another painting, “Wow,” he says. “Diverse. When’d you paint this?” It's the picture of a hunched man digging a grave. Stegner painted it the day of murder, and he says, “Maybe it’s time I get a lawyer.”

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