September 23, 1994

Great Art

No one can explain how the notes of a Mozart melody, or the folds of a piece of Titian's drapery, produce their essential effects. If you do not feel it, no one can by reason make you feel it.

John Ruskin, 1860

I have experienced great art a number of times. Note that I said experienced rather than saw or heard, because great art is experienced. Great art is capable of evoking emotions, feelings or ideas, without your thinking about it. If you have to think about it, it isn't cutting it with you.

The first time I experienced this with dance was when I went to the Broadway production of Carousel. Bambi Lynn was dancing to Agnes DeMille's choreography. She danced "loneliness" and I felt her loneliness. I didn't have to think about it, I just felt it. It was as if the dance reached into some ordinarily inaccessible part of my mind and made me feel lonely. It was an astounding experience. My father told me that Isadora Duncan once did that for him. Most ballet leaves me cold, but I have seen films of Pavlova and seen a solo performance by Maya Plisetzkaya that have thrilled me. Occasionally Barishnikov can excite me.The figure skater Oksana Baul evokes pure emotion in me, which is usually interrupted by some *%&$# sports commentator.

I have often felt emotions in operas. It is the feeling that some opera evokes in me that makes me like it. While the emotion-evoking apparatus is usually in the music, it takes a fine performer to evoke it. When Beniamino Gigli sings "mamma" I hear a small boy. When Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stephano sing the last scene in the opera Tosca, I can feel the emotions even without understanding all of the language. The late Russian basso Feodor Chaliapin could evoke emotion in people who didn't understand a word of the Russian language. Still, to get the complete effect, it helps to know the language. If a song brings tears or laughter to some members of the audience, you know that the composer and the singer are doing something right. Of course if the same song brings tears to some and laughter to others, it makes you wonder.

The same thing is true of art. I have seen masses of people lined up to view the Mona Lisa. Why? Because they have been told that it is great art. That painting leaves me cold, but I have seen a number of paintings by great artists, as well as unknowns, that have evoked a mood in me instantaneously.There is a museum in Perugia, Italy that is full of Perugino's (and his disciple's) paintings. As far as I'm concerned, if you see one Perugino madonna, you've seen them all. While wandering through the museum, I chanced upon a painting that seemed to be centuries ahead of its time. I asked the guard who painted it and he replied that he was "a nobody".

Everyone is different, and the same work that evokes feelings in one person might do nothing for another. But if it can evoke feelings in some people, it qualifies as great art. Some would have you believe that only if it evokes something in them, is it great. Baloney! Norman Rockwell is a great artist. He did have the advantage of having seen the work of Rembrandt and probably learned from it. Someone else will have the advantage, in the future, of having seen Rockwell.

There are a number of people who believe that for an artist to be great, he has to be dead -More baloney!

No one is great all of the time. It is enough to have great moments. That may be all that anyone has a right to expect.

If you would like your children to appreciate and enjoy art and music, just expose them to lots of it without comment.

I had a word to say about music and art appreciation courses; but this is a family newspaper so I can't use that word.

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