Friday, February 20, 2009

Culture

Devan and I visited the university art museum today.
It is incumbent upon culturally engaged people to take in the sweep of artistic achievement, to appreciate properly the complexity of the human race, to feel the epic emotions that rage in each of our psyches and . . . it was free.
Now, I am no country bumpkin. I know when to clap at the symphony. Which is precisely at the point when everyone else begins to clap. At the last concert we attended, I got lost in the movements of Beethoven's sixth. I was back on the third movement, waiting for the thunder and lightning of the fourth. The movement ended and I settled in. Ah, now for the climax. I was horrified when everyone began clapping.
Uncultured swine, I snarled under my breath.
As it happened, I was the swine, or at least the uncultured one. The thunder and lightning had been some less bombastic than I was expecting. (Think of a soft summer Seattle shower, as opposed to the Oklahoma frog-strangler I was anticipating.)
But, in the interest of broadening my horizons and smoothing down my dog-eared corners, I suggested we go to the art museum.
Upon entering, we were asked if we were here to look at anything specific. I hedged. I'm accustomed to brushing off sales clerks with, "Nope, just lookin'." but is such a dodge acceptable in an art museum?
Devan, on the other hand, did not hedge and responded precisely with that retail brush-off I was avoiding.
"We're just looking around."
This surprised me, as Devan is normally somewhat cowed and intimidated in the face of the unknown; generally a real hand-wringer.
I cringed.
"Okayyy." the girl leaned across the desk with that smile she no doubt crafted for the fifth-graders on a field trip from Harlan County.
"The exhibit on this floor is a paid exhibit." The word "paid" had a curious force to it and a little shower refracted the sunlight streaming in the glass doors.
I looked around the first floor and caught sight of a work to which I could instantly relate. It shouted frustration and confusion, even anger. At a passing glance it resembled a scrambled scrawl.
The reason I could relate to it so well was because it resembled a work that I keep by the phone in the kitchen. It's on a Post-It pad. I completed the work one day when I was on the phone with the insurance agent and my pen wouldn't write. The deep swirling scratches in the yellow paper remind me of despondency on a sunny day.
This particular artist had communicated well his angst. It was even darker than mine. I felt for him.
"And," the magnanimity continued, "the upstairs exhibit is our permanent exhibit and it is free."
"Well," said I, catching Devan's free-spirited chutzpa, "that's probably where we'll want to go."
The dazzling smile did little to melt the frost from her eyes.
I grabbed Devan's hand and together we clomped up the stairs. (I wore boots, which in retrospect, may not have been the proper footwear to wear to an art museum. If I had not left my ballet slippers at home . . )
As we ascended the stairs, I began to open my mind, discarding all prejudicial preferences.
This is not a Thomas Kinkade gallery.
I did well throughout the first six or seven works, giving each the attention it deserved.
I came to a point where there hung a roughly 4'x6' frame. Glued to the canvas, covering every square inch, were straight twigs, approximately three to four inches long. They were all affixed vertically. There were slightly different shades of brown, some twigs still retained the bark.
I knew immediately what to do. I backed up several feet and let my eyes glaze over.
My aunt and uncle had a calendar like this back in '92. If you look at it long enough, something will jump out at you, like a coffee-cup, or a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.
Devan interrupted my reverie. "It's called 'Rain'." she pointed to the placard.
I studied it some more. "Yeeesss, yes, I see that!" If you looked at it long enough it became unbelievably clear. The twigs . . . . were raindrops! Somewhat elongated, somewhat solidified, somewhat brown, somewhat . . . .wooden, but raindrops nonetheless. I moved on, satisfied with my appraisal and furthermore determined never to get caught in rainstorm like that! Beethoven should've composed a movement about that rainstorm.
Further down, we came to a particularly expressive piece. It was a wide piece of canvas tacked to a framework of two-by-twos. Vertical tears ran strategically down the work, exposing the skeletal two-bys. The canvas was predominately brown and black. In large block letters, one in between each tear, was the word HA!
Instantly the spirit of the artist spoke through his work and I began laughing too.
I felt I could even discern what he was amused about! It was too hilariously funny, the mischievous nature of this artist. I could even see him laughing, head thrown back, embracing the moment as he counted the money paid him for the ripped, bespoiled canvas.
Just around the corner, I was taken aback by a stark representation. The emotions one felt gazing at this masterpiece literally ran the gamut of experience.
At first I was sobered, even saddened by the somber tone of it all; so black, so . . . . rigidly utilitarian. The rectangular work suggested a trapped man, one desperate to break free from the chains of society. It was eight feet tall and approximately six feet wide. Then I saw a touch that brought tears to my eyes, a neon EXIT sign perched at the top. What torture, what futility had this man experienced and portrayed so well in his art!
Then, I began to see another dimension to his idea. It was satire! He was displaying a bold contempt of the conformity adhered to by our capitalistic society. The triumph of his journey from incarceration to independence, futility to freedom, captivity to contempt burned a smile through the tears.
Next to this masterpiece, there was a large, clashing cacophony. A dual toned irregular rectangle thrust bluntly down into a splotched white expanse.
I sneaked a peek at the placard.
Odorless.
I sniffed.
It was, except for a little acrylic whang.
Next up, I was simply not prepared for what I saw. It was a landscape scene. Two blurry figures walked along a deserted beach. Little dot-dash-dot clouds flocked in the sky.
Here I was stumped. What a cryptic message. What dark implication lay behind the azure sky?
Then I smacked my forehead.
Devan said, "Babe, don't do that."
"Of course," I said, "He is trying to get us to see the emptiness of mere Impressionism."
"How so?"
I couldn't believe she asked.
"Well, " I explained, "just look at it! It's as plain as the nose on your face."
Her brow wrinkled. "That one?" She pointed.
It so happened the next painting was a large, bald head shaped like a thumb. A large Roman nose took center stage.
"No, no." I motioned. "Here. This ghastly beach scene. Doesn't it just send chills up your spine the way he portrays the presumption of Impressionists."
Devan shivered. I still haven't asked her whether she got it, caught a sudden draft, or was being a peasant.
I marveled at the artistic finesse and satirical wit before moving on.
Devan was gazing at a pastoral scene with trees that were grossly and crudely depicted as trees with actual branches and leaves. Moreover, there was green grass and a house.
I puzzled over this for some time before deciding that some artists just didn't get it.
Walking out of the gallery was what did it. Observing the unwashed masses of college students streaming around us I mused, After all, there are bound to be some prosaic schmo's out there who have nothing better to communicate than, than . . . natural beauty.
Bourgeoisie was the word for which I was searching.

5 comments:

Devan said...

What I want to know is this, "Where can I get a canvas, red, blue and yellow paint, a few Christmas tree light bulbs (no joke--this was actually part of a "piece of art" with a "Do not touch" sign attached.), and some poor soul who thinks they have tapped into their "inner self", god, whatever, willing to pay big money for something my youngest student could've slapped together while watching "Rugrats".
I think I may have missed my professional calling in life! ;O)

wncjr said...

Nate,you and devan in my opinion do not have culture.Culture :Websters Dictionary;"cultivated,;produced under artificial conditions. A virus or bacteria can be cultured.What you have is class.The ability to discern between real and artificial using the brains God gave you to know the difference from the real and the false.Your lives are an inspiration to us.

Jackie said...

Thanks, Nathan! I needed a good laugh today, and this was just what the doctor ordered. Hilarious!

Jennifer said...

Ditto what Jackie said. You crack me up.

Anonymous said...

Keep the satire coming!!!Beautifully written!!!Loved every minute of it; it reminded me of walking through the many contemporary art galleries and scratching my head! Yolanda P.