What is Art?

I wrote yesterday of my love of boxing, showing that I am at my core, violent and a bit of a savage, not in the sense of wanting to be violent but enjoying to watch violence in acceptable venues, like boxing or football or congressional debates, as possibly a way to express that emotion without harm to others and knowing that if I bottle it up inside it may come out in inappropriate ways.

So I will now expose myself further as a Cretan and Neanderthal when it comes to certain art forms, abstract painting specifically. Not that I haven’t tried to understand as I have stared at paintings with nothing but wide stripes that differ only in slightly lighter shades of white and I have looked at sculptures that seem to be nothing more than a mass of congealed wires and I have tried to understand but nothing happens. And I walk away feeling that I am just not bright enough to accept great art. I much prefer art of masters like daVinci or Michelangelo whose depictions of human beings seem more likely made by the hand of god and implore me into thinking about what exactly was happening in the world at the time.

I have been told that I will appreciate abstract art, in particular, if I know about the history of the piece and of the artist. Well, I have learned a bit about Jackson Pollack and his depression and alcoholism and violence and I still don’t get his paintings which yes, I believe, my son could do just as well. I am told his work was groundbreaking, in part, because he moved away from conventional brushes and other ways to apply paint. OK, I’m trying to follow this but it’s not easy and what’s the big deal if he uses a pitchfork to splatter paint. If anything, when standing in front of one of Pollack’s sprawling paintings, I feel the weight of the painting, whatever that means.

I beg to plead guilty to having no clue what a N.Y. Times art reviewer meant when he wrote that the painting “Mural” by Pollack involves “ponderous symbolism and overcalculated squiggles of Pollock’s first years got channeled to something rhythmic, automatic, almost dancing, and almost drippy” and how the brush strokes and colors “encourages you to read it horizontally, like a narrative panorama.”

Come again, you lost me with “overcalculated squiggles.”

I am not one of those people who sees a painting and says it doesn’t really look like a boat or why are the person’s eyes exaggerated? Perhaps, abstract expressionism is just not my cup of tea because I do appreciate the cubist paintings of Picasso because they do convey drama, pain and even love and they make me think.

Which brings me to classical music, which I would have absolutely no part of earlier in my life, in much the same way that I didn’t really appreciate Dylan until I was in my 30s. I do now enjoy classical music because it makes me feel things and hear things that I don’t usually feel and hear. But then a music critic says that Beethoven’s “Eroica” “for all its Promethean energy, is boisterous and full of musical jokes. Beethoven takes a kind of comic tune and puts it through a series of improbable yet triumphant variations. Yet all these works, whether riotous, near-crazed, strangely mystical or sublime, somehow embody greatness and come across as inevitable, as if the music simply must be the way it is.”

What in God’s name are “musical jokes” and “strangely mystical or sublime?” Yes, I understand that to appreciate great art requires research and understanding not only of the art but also of the artist. It just sounds like too much work and I have to ask how people, who aren’t even as smart as I am, can possibly understand and appreciate such music and art. This is art, while timeless, is not for the masses.

And while I’m rolling, can anyone tell me if they have ever read “Ulysses” by James Joyce from cover to cover and I don’t mean the first seven pages which I have read over and over before giving up each time because it is simply too hard to read and totally intelligible to me. “Ulysses” is considered by many literary experts to be one of the best if not the best novel of the 20th Century. When they say best do they mean the most convoluted? The literary experts are probably the only ones who read it beyond page seven and I would wager that even some of the experts didn’t finish it, leaving maybe one expert who has actually read it all the way through, not counting Joyce.

And that brings me to the films of the great Swedish film maker, Ingmar Bergman, famous for scenes of ghostly figures in white capes who carry weapons of some kind under an ominous grey sky, while somber music rumbles in the background and suddenly there are excruciating close-ups of a man and woman arguing that death is preferable to life as they acknowledge that yes, they have pondered non-existence. These films also are considered masterpieces and I admit they can be interesting in a strange way but I would much rather watch “On the Waterfront.”

Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer