It’s the holiday season as I’m writing, and a lot of families are hitting cultural venues that they wouldn’t pay much attention to otherwise. I know when I was a regular church member, that was a while back, our rector would approach the seasonal increase in our church attendance with a certain flair for arch irony. It’s Christmas day and attendance seemed to double in our church for the space of 24 hours as people who had not attended all year decided to pay us a visit for one day. Better once than never and maybe they will come back was the appropriate attitude that we took.
I hesitated to write this essay because I might come off sounding like a snot but WTF. Appreciating culture, and cultures, which are related skills, is one of the few things that I know how to do. My friends like the J’s who are associated with this site know I’m not a snob. And if you are scurrying around trying to find an antidote to the xenophobia and racism currently staining our government such ugly colors, my suggestion would be that you should go to an art museum and breathe some clean, environmentally friendly air. Since I live in New York, I’ll throw in some examples from there.
The first thing to remember about all the arts is that appreciation is a perceptual skill. So, if you’re standing in front of a picture, or walking around a sculpture (which you should do if possible), “I don’t understand this.” is not quite the most accurate reaction. It would be better to say, “I don’t know how to look at this.”
Art is about looking, being curious, being Sherlock Holmes, sometimes even with a magnifying glass. If you are stumped the problem may be that you don’t have a frame of reference. All our perceptions are judgments; there is no such thing as naïve “just looking”. You look based on what you are used to.
I won’t kid you, increasing appreciation takes time. I’ve read every poem and play by Shakespeare, many of them multiple times. I’ve been able to see a few of them performed or on film. This over a long lifetime. Do I understand Shakespeare? No.
But it’s still worth trying for the pleasure of trying to understand. No one “understands” Shakespeare anyway. It’s like working on your golf game. You still enjoy it even though you’ll never win the Masters.
Here’s some help with your frame of reference. I started going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was 18. When I started I didn’t feel comfortable about what I was looking at. I didn’t know whether I was enjoying it or not. But I went anyway because I felt there was something available for me to grasp but I just wasn’t getting it. It’s like when you are working with software at your job and there is something you don’t know how to do with it. After repeated fails, you could convince yourself that it’s incomprehensible, or that a peon like you cannot be expected to understand something that is so hard. But then a tech savvy person explains it to you…and you can do it!
I started by liking one painting. It was a large landscape by the 19th century artist Theodore Rousseau, of Fontainebleau forest at dusk. When I went back to the museum, although I still felt lost, I would detour to look at that painting because I knew I liked it. If I didn’t go back to look at it again, I felt I was missing out.
It took me years to notice that there were dark figures of birds flying across the top of the painting. It took me more years to realize that the birds were moving in the same direction as the peasants that appeared at the bottom. And another time to register that there was a dark reflecting pond in the depths of the forest.
Drawings are intimate. One person at a time please. Wait your turn to see what Michelangelo’s hand could do. Murals are for the community; whole groups can look together. Paintings often hit the middle ground. It’s sort of like chamber music is intimate and symphonies are public statements.
I loved that picture by Rousseau and I still love it, maybe because I spent so long to puzzle it out. So, you start with something you like and then move on from there. The liking process should keep developing. Art is networked.
Modern art can be explicitly serial, the artist doing multiple versions of similar things. It’s like serial killers, only the artist is not killing people but trying to do killer paintings. In such cases you look for the variations, like how many kinds of snow can you notice. You learn to network the art, like you can network with people in your business.
Network artists. Artists know each other. Even artists separated by centuries can know each other, and you can join in. This is a party to which you have always been invited. You just must realize that you have been put on the A list all along. And the after-parties can be knockouts.
There’s an outrageously elitist line in Henry James’ The Ambassadors. It goes something like, “He knew how to enter a box at the opera.”
The right way to go to Lincoln Center, or other performing arts venues, is to act like you own it and, as the host, are welcoming your guests. You are gracious and forbearing, even if someone is wearing a lame tie or has brought an awful wine. Remember, you own the place. If a guest acts like a bore, you try to be tactful and work around it. And it’s an occasion, like you are announcing your daughter’s engagement, so you are dressed in your best.
The performing arts are always in a state of celebration. Off Broadway may be more casual, but you should still wear something nice. It’s always a gala time for you. Yes, I know the Groucho Marx joke from Duck Soup and Margaret Dumont is still attending the opera. You go to look at the audience, not just the stage!
And at the ballet you can stare at beautiful bodies for hours. No one will stop you. That’s why people go, and for the dance.
Classical music is formal, like learning to use the right fork at a banquet. But if you can follow the plot of Game of Thrones, then you can pick up the plot of a symphony or concerto…if you want to.
If not, just realizing that the music is organized like the code in a computer program, and that the concert is one possible performance of that code, is enough. Can you code, btw? Beethoven, Bach, Mozart created some of the greatest code. The music is also visceral. I sat in the second row at a Mahler concert and had my head blown off. The loudest freakin sounds that I have ever heard.
After your event don’t you dare go home. Go for a drink or coffee and talk it over. If you’ve gone solo, you should still do the same to unwind, mull it over, maybe meet someone new. And I’ve never sat down at Lincoln Center, where I first went by cutting class when I was 18, without drinking champagne first. It’s been my “I’ve survived!” ritual forever. See you there.