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Understanding Art

ART TIMES Jan/Feb, 2004

IT IS, PERHAPS, an axiom that in no other occupation than that of the creator — artist, writer, composer — does the true nature of a person so readily reveal itself as it does in the products he (or she) produces. No matter the public or even private persona, it is here, in the realized work of art that who or what the creator actually is is revealed for all the world to see. In spite of common belief, neither the personal nor vicarious "knowledge" of artists’ lives can ever reveal their true nature. Do you want to know van Gogh? Study his paintings. Shakespeare? Read his plays. Wagner? Listen to his music. Whatever incidentals you may glean from a biography of any of these artists, no details of their lives will ever come close to revealing what their work can tell us. It is for this reason that I never take the time to read artists’ statements since nothing they say can alter what their work so baldly proclaims. Not even a writer can adequately relate in words what a given work may "mean" — since, like any work of art, it "means" itself. Robert Frost, when asked once by some well-meaning interviewer what a certain poem "meant," said simply that it "meant what it said." This may not be very satisfying to many would-be "knowers," but there is no short cut in viewing a painting, reading a poem, or of listening to a piece of music. One must simply resign oneself to taking the time to interact with the work of art — there is no other path to understanding it or in determining its "meaning." It is, as a matter of fact, a question of education. Now by this I don’t mean attending a present-day public school and attaining a certificate or degree. For some time now, students, by and large, have not been given an education but instead have simply been conditioned to serving as receptacles for information. Consequently, they come away from schooling thinking that if only one has enough information, if one only remembers enough facts to pass a "final" exam (what a misnomer that is! As if there can ever be a "finality" to learning even the simplest of subjects), then this is quite enough to "know" something. Alas! This is not confined to the newly matriculated student, for it is abundantly evident that even our so-called experts — and every field has them — constantly confuse explanation — i.e. an "informative" wrap-up — as understanding. A single month’s worth of following the TV pundits will reveal the mish-mosh that passes for information that we are daily asked to accept. Whatever "finding" is hawked as the latest thing will almost surely be found false by month’s end. All this because like fast food, we blindly accept fast data as gospel — and with the advent of the internet such mis- and dis-information dizzily speeds through cyberspace to further confound and mislead the vast host of non-educated persons that make up our "educated" population. Sated with information, they have no room — or capability — for understanding. Instead of taking the time to be with a work of art to see what the artist is actually "saying," they visit art museums with ear phones, resort to Cliff Notes to peruse a poem, or read music critics to find out what they are about to hear or had heard last evening. How can they have their own convictions when they allow others to dictate them? And how can they have convictions when they have never been educated to arrive at them? All this is compounded by the sad fact that many of our present-day "artists" are products of the same system — ergo, so much "meaningless" art, music and literature inundating our world. So — serious artists beware! Your audiences are fast dwindling…we have seen the barbarians batter down the gates and flood our culture — and they are very often ourselves!

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