Friday, February 5, 2010

I Only Know What I Like

Many posts ago, I spoke of perceived vs. actual wine snobbishness, how I didn't think I was a wine snob because I really don't know anything about wine, only what I like. I feel the same way about art. I never took art history in college because, if memory serves, it met in the dreaded 8 or 9am hour, so my knowledge of art is pretty limited. Sure, I was a snooty New York kid who spent a day in which she cut school wandering around the Met, and I certainly have been exposed to my fair share of art, but I've never learned much about it. Couple this with my absolute inability to produce art and you see what I mean.

Much like poetry, I don't think I could rattle off works by the greats (or give you a title if you gave me an artist), though I could probably, for the real biggies go, oh yeah, the one with the woman and the shell, I know that one (for a poetry comparison please see the one about the road that goes in different directions and both of them make me roll my eyes at Robert Frost). But I think I like looking at art, though I don't do it as much as I should.

The past two Thursday nights, however, have seen devoted partner and me looking at art. Non-famous art. In an effort to explore the local offerings, we went to an art gallery last Thursday to see the work of a home-grown artist and last night we went to the opening of a photography exhibition at the Greenwich library (to anyone who has ever spent any time in the Mid-Manhattan library, you would not believe what the Greenwich library looks like - as devoted partner remarked, "I think those are Aeron chairs at the computer terminals.").

Devoted partner will, from time to time, lament that when he looks at art he doesn't 'get it.' Meaning, I assume, that without a background in looking at art critically, one is left with either I like this or I don't like this piece of art. I don't know. I remember an especially rewarding tour of the Guggenheim with Etienne where we loudly remarked (in the fashion of the snooty art-heads that always seem to be right in front or behind you in a museum) on the various hidden monkeys/penises in the obtuse modern paintings we were viewing. Sometimes art is like that. Where the only enjoyment I can derive is by pretending I see hidden monkeys. Other times, I get the creeping suspicion that the art I am looking at is intentionally obtuse as a way to compensate for not actually being any good. In either case, I understand what devoted partner is saying, but I'm not sure I feel the same way.

As an aside, my mother complains similarly when she reads a book. She worries that she doesn't get the allusions and deeper meanings. As a former lit crit nerd, I have done my time in the literary penis scavenger hunt and here's the thing: if the book sucked, no amount of hidden penises can make up for it. When a book is really good, you get the message.

So I am art-savvy enough to know that the paintings at the gallery were influenced by certain Picasso and a heavy serving of pop-art, and I can also understand that conflating those styles is interesting. But I'm not sure I got it. Meaning, I didn't have a visceral reaction. The art didn't touch me. I just looked at it and went, "hey some of this is evocative of other stuff I've seen." I can't make an educated determination on its relative merits, I just know it isn't the kind of art I'd hang on my own walls.

When we went to the photography exhibit, I felt a similar thing. The exhibit featured works by three different photographers covering three very different subjects. One artist worked with cityscapes, one with tobacco farms, and the third with traveling circus performers. Since I'm trying to understand more about photography and take better pictures myself, this was especially interesting. Except when it wasn't. For me. Again, I wasn't emotionally swayed. There were some pictures I liked and some I didn't, but none of them left a lasting impression.

So, I found myself thinking that art appreciation and wine appreciation are plagued by similar problems. Having drunk California Zinfandels that people rave about only to discover they taste like cough syrup and having been completely nonplussed by Important Art, I know that sometimes hype trumps aesthetics. A groundswell occurs where if you don't like said cult wine or artist, you must not know enough about the subject, and I think this makes people wary of exploring either because it either seems too exclusive or too damn full of itself. And I think that's an effin shame because both mediums produce pleasure and something to talk about. The only pitfall to avoid is not liking something on principle in the same way people seem to rave about things just because it's the fashion to do so.


  1. Didn't they make you learn stuff about poetry as an English major? Anyway, I "know things" about art, and I'm still looking for the penises. In fact, at a show last night two of my comments were, "Ooh, look at the defecating rabbit" and, in reference to some abstract forms, "maybe they're flying monkeys."

  2. Yeah, but I'm not one of those people who can go around quothing Ozymandias and such. It gets to the point where you only remember them like, "nazi, gay, hermit," maybe that is the same with artists!