January 19, 2008
It’s next time again. I was gifted a great new idea for the Blog and I need your help to make this work. The idea is brilliant. Sometimes you go to a really great dinner party where you meet really smart and charming new people. The conversation is thrilling and is somehow more satisfying than even the best food. You leave feeling smarter and genuinely nourished. Haven’t we all wished to be a fly on the wall at the Café de Flore in Paris when Sartre, Hemingway or Capote was hanging out or to have been a guest at one of the great salons in Europe where great minds mingled together to knock around great ideas? Well, this is what a Blog ought to be; a place for new ideas and provocations. Well the genius of this idea for my Blog is that the people, like you, who are most likely to read this thing, are genuinely fascinating people. Hundreds of them. All over the world. So the plan is to generate some sparks with discussions about art and music and film and ideas and to make this a really fun place for you to find some interesting ideas and write a comment or two to share your devastating brilliance with the rest of us.
Against the advice of the gifter of this great idea I am going to start with a really esoteric topic, one with which I am genuinely struggling. The gifter and I discussed this idea briefly and it was deemed too complicated and too convoluted, especially for this first small step on this new alien landscape of the blogosphere. He suggested sheepishly that I might blog about the recent well-publicized poll about how everybody hates clowns. We all agree on this. What is there to discuss? But a greater mind than even his said, “Follow your bliss.” So I’m goin’ for it and trust me, you can handle this.
Note: The blog went up over the weekend and there are already fascinating comments posted, most are better than the entry itself, which is just what I was hoping would happen. Check out Marcie Bergman’s (she is the head of the Cleveland Arts Prize). Dana Ivey (the Tony nominated Broadway actress) takes the discussion to sculpture. Steven Fong (former dean of Architecture at Kent State Univ.) takes it to Architecture. John Ziegler (Construction Project Manager for the massive Whitman College complex at Princeton University) takes the discussion to hockey. Bob Woods, the founder of Telarc Records takes the discussion digital with some really profound insight. Sarah Gridley, the Poet in Residence at Case Western Reserve University, takes the discussion to her own hugely sophisticated and transcendent “other.” What is so impressive to me in everyones responses is the sincerity of thought and feeling! It is really powerful. To get in on this just click over on the comments box on someone’s name and then you access the comments page – which also includes the original blog entry – to contribute your genius gems.
I write this filled with fear, because an art curator who read the first self-serving entry on this blog bravely said, “Nice job but keep it short.” Eeeeeek! Easy to say, really tough to do. I wonder which of you will have the guts to say, “Make it longer!” I bet nobody, which is the genius of her tough love admonition.
So here goes. Ahem. There is a pre-Renaissance artist who is no one’s favorite. Poor guy. This pioneer gets two paltry slides in any survey course and gets immediately forgotten in the wake of Botticelli and Mantegna. So, when Catherine suggested, on this last Italian trip, that we make the trek to Ferrara to the Palazzo Diamante to see the show on Cosmè Tura, I was less than excited. However, the Palazzo Diamante always has wonderful exhibitions and I invariably push back from the table of their exhibitions feeling sated and delighted with what their curators serve. What I don’t know about Cosmè Tura is huge so I got onto the Web Gallery of Art (which had the best selection I could find of his stuff.) Check out this link with the fancy name: Cosmè Tura Miscellaneous polyptychs!
I did my homework and got even less excited about seeing his work. Cosmè Tura is a Northern influenced Italian painter (1430-1495) from – duh! Ferarra, and the people in his paintings have boney hands and feet and there is sort of a Durer graphic quality to the work but it doesn’t make you sing or dance or shriek in abject joy. I saw all his masterworks on the big color computer monitor and I was sorta bored.
On the train, sitting next to Tudy, (see blog entry Dec 2007) she showed me black and white photos of his and other Ferrarese painters from a cherished and well-thumbed 1930’s era blue cloth-covered hardback. All the plates were in black and white. She said the great art historian and connoisseur, Bernard Berenson told her to always study Black and White reproductions – that they were somehow better than color. I shrugged and thought this was antique advice from the era when color printing was often cockeyed. Her observation, however, is dead on point.
Well, if you’ve been paying attention, now is where you expect me to tell you how devastatingly overpowering this show was and how important this artist has become for me.Well you have a surprise coming.He did not bowl me over with some giant masterpiece.He instead snuck in the back door of my heart with a charming little painting 30% smaller than the cover of a Time magazine. The best thing I ever read about Cosmè Tura was that he was “a man of the Renaissance but the ingredients of his taste were still medieval.” His temperament was described as “Dynamism, even violence, combined with almost feminine sentimentality.”
This was the image and, in reproduction, it is totally underwhelming. Look again. See her wonderful hands. Really look at them and isolate them from the composition. The blacks in the painting reproduce without any of the gloomy charm of the original. But then take another look at the star of the show down there! When was the last time you saw a baby Jesus in that particular pose? Hysterical! What the hell is doing? He looks like he’s posing for Playgirl or something naughty. He cracks me up!
The whole thing, in reproduction, is dull and lifeless and an excuse to yawn. In person, like so many things in life and art, it is a completely transcendent “other.” This small painting is you-had–to-be-there drop dead gorgeous. So, dear reader, what is it about the actual object that gives it such gravitas and power?
Well, you cluck, this is an old and tired question. This is so obvious! But is it really? High definition video of this image would have come a lot closer to impressing you with its power than a photograph. Would it have been the same as the original? Of course not, but would it have done the job more thoroughly? I think the obvious answer is yes. So what’s the deal? Is it a question of digital and other kinds of information?
I come to find out, through a lecture by dear friend and former head of Art History at Case Western Reserve University, Harvey Buchanan, that the entire joint program of the University and the Cleveland Museum of Art was in a way built upon this sort of self evident idea; the study of art is hugely impacted by the study of the objects themselves. Well DUH! He and the great Asian Art scholar Sherman Lee (who Harvey explained was the first PhD in Art History from Case Western Reserve!) started the joint program 40 years ago inspired by this simple/stupid/complex/profound idea. In subsequent discussion with the new head of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Timothy Rub, he explained to me that there are entire new schools of Art History who don’t study the objects at all! Whaaaa? How is that even possible? Well, Dr. Rub explained, they study the sociology, the gender conflicts, the deconstructed meanings, the conceptual frameworks, and the actual experience of the object itself is not the overarching focus anymore. This came as a total shock and seemed as unlikely and counter intuitive as a deaf man composing great music, which we all know is impossible.
So, my question to you is, What is it about the actual object of art that contains such power? What is that power? Can it ever be effectively captured? (Remember that is sort of what I attempt to do for a living.) Is it some mystical mind force or concentrated essence of the artist, as is posited in Indian philosophy, that somehow resides in the object and is then mysteriously communicated to the viewer? Is it photographable, filmable, otherwise describable? This idea has huge implications for the study of Architecture. I now see the coy genius of great Architects, whom I have interviewed, who hedge their bets telling me in a qualifying tone about this or that design, “But, I have not actually been inside that space . . . time will tell.” The space in Architecture, of course, being equivalent to the actual object, the actual experience of the “art.”
Don’t be shy. Don’t fumble around and put this off. Post a comment and give me, and everyone else, the benefit of your insight. Tell us about some object you saw, or own, or that changed your life and what you think is the true source of its power? What is it specifically about the object that a reproduction cannot capture? I hope you will post a comment or an insight. Or – maybe I should just stop reaching beyond my grasp and send in the clowns!
Until next time, I remain, your,