November 02, 2022

Article at

View original

Art For Your Sake

“I may not know art, but I know what I like.”

For most of my life, this idiom didn’t bother me at all. I assumed that I agreed with it without thinking about it too deeply.

Recently, however, I started thinking about it too deeply. I came up with the following analogy, which is meant to be helpful, but which might just leave you perpetually perplexed.

If I said to you, “I may not know movies that don’t star Tom Cruise, but I know that I like movies that do star Tom Cruise,” you’d think I was a little nuts.

You probably already think I am a little nuts, but you’d find new justification for thinking I am more-than-a-little nuts.

You might say to me, “Look, Steve. Movies that star Tom Cruise are undeniably great. But there are a lot of movies that don’t star Tom Cruise that I think you’d like.” And I would reply, “Nope. After I saw ‘Top Gun,’ I decided that I would only watch Tom Cruise movies from then on. Incidentally, I also decided in 1991 that I would only eat Urkel-Os cereal and I have kept that promise to myself, despite the fact that a 30-year-old box costs $60 on eBay and it always sends me to the emergency room.”

It’s OK to know what you like, of course (as long as it doesn’t cause recurrent bouts of food poisoning).

But I don’t think anyone ever stops and says, “I have figured out everything I might conceivably like. Therefore, I will try not to like another thing.”

At least, I hope none of us do.

I am not trying to say that I don’t know what I like. But the list of things I like is ever growing. I am always on the lookout for new things to like.

If you let your opinions about such things get too firm, you may miss out on some great (and perhaps even life-changing) experiences.

For example, artistic experiences.

By the way, it’s perfectly OK to feel like you don’t “know art.”

I have been covering fine art, classical music, theater, ballet, and contemporary dance for various publications for more than 30 years and I still don’t feel like I know art.

I combat this by keeping an open mind and by not being afraid to ask stupid questions.

I have learned that it is more dangerous for me to pretend I know what I’m talking about than it is for me to admit that I’m as ignorant as I, in fact, am.

Where knowing art is concerned, I think the journey must be more important than the destination.

Many years ago, a reporter from the Washington Post went around and asked a bunch of people the following question: “What is art?”

The answer from painter Robert Rauschenberg is the one intrigued me the most: “If I ever found out, I’d quit.”

As a fellow creative person (albeit one that is way farther down on the food chain than Rauschenberg was), I can only guess what he meant by that.

When I start a project, I never know exactly where I am going to end up.

Even when there are guidelines, there are surprises.

The surprises are the best part.

Perhaps being able to define art is like knowing ahead of time where you are going to end up.

“Why make art if I know exactly where I am going to end up?” may be another version of Rauschenberg’s response.

It may come as a shock to you to learn that I might not even know where I am going to end up in this column.

I said, “might.”

If you feel like you don’t know what art is and not knowing is what is scaring you away from art, I have got news for you: No one knows what art is.

If you ask 100 artists and arts administrators what art is, you’d get 100 different answers.

Some of them might act as if they are pondering the question for the first time. Some might behave like a defendant who is hearing the question shouted at them outside of a courthouse.

It’s a fraught question, is what I am saying.

You may even think you live an art-free life, but if I came to your house and mocked your décor, your furnishings and your wardrobe, you’d feel insulted.

Why would you feel insulted?

Because I would be questioning your artistic judgment.

I would never question your artistic judgment and I would never question your right to go into a museum or to an orchestral concert and respond to the art in a way that is different from the ways everyone else is responding to the art.

For the year 2023, I think your motto should be, “I may not know art, but I don’t know what I like.”

Go out there and figure out what art you like, as if for the first time.

The arts organizations that come under the Arts United umbrella don’t have Tom Cruise in them.

But maybe you will find in them something that excites you more than Tom Cruise, or something that excites you more than whatever it is was that excited you in 2022.

That’s a tantalizing possibility, isn’t it?

There is nothing, however, as exciting as Urkel-Os.


Art For Your Sake

Seasonal Impression

Move Mountains