Good Art

the temple bell stops / but the music keeps coming / out of the flowers —Basho

While I do love a good poem, I don’t like all poems. The same with other art. A piece must transport me to a “different world”, of memory or of possibility. Technique is critical: any flaws distract from the transport and can foreclose on the desiderata. Technique is particularly important with ensemble dance, where unity of motion can transport me, but any skew gesture, by accident or by design, leaves me dejected. For poems, even the typesetting is important. Granted, “A poem should be palpable and mute, as a globed fruit” (MacLiesh), but also: A poem should be ample, able, and put, as a figured blot. I do expose myself to new art (though not like Bud Clark), but am rarely rewarded. I am highly aware of difficulties in communicating simple factual information to people who sincerely want to receive it and are competent to comprehend it. Transmitting complex emotional information to a diverse and random audience must be leagues more difficult.

Last year Mrs. Dean and I visited Bonn to tour Beethoven’s house and take in some museums. I elected to experience modern art. Gallery after gallery, my disappointment increased, until finally I espied, across one gallery and through a doorway to the next, something quite intriguing. I savored the anticipation as I tried to “get” the pieces in my current gallery, and finally allowed myself to enter the tempting one. Alas! It was the historical room, with fine pieces by Max Ernst and others – nobody from any recent decade. I was of course happy to enjoy the genius, but rueful, reflecting on my lack of personal response to the rest of the museum. A few years prior, Mrs. Dean and I had visited the Tate in London, mainly to visit the Turner collection, but there was plenty from the early 1900’s. Those “classic” modernists (can I use such a juxtaposition?) were expressing something detectable and special absent from more recent works.

I’ve never really followed musical trends, but I was caught up in the Grunge phenomenon. I happened to live in Seattle then, but that hardly matters as I rarely attended live music, and then mostly just local bar bands, not really enjoying it. I listened to the radio and bought the CDs. I wonder if “spirit of the age” is a real phenomenon. The eras of the Dutch Masters, the Impressionists, Dada; the Big Band era, Rock-and-Roll, Grunge. It seems as if there are brief intervals of innovation punctuated by longer ones deserted by the muses. Does culture need to chew, swallow, digest, and sleep before fully absorbing the innovations it has hunted, gathered, or cultivated? The imitators that come after can be just as competent, or even technically better, than the founders, but their work is obviously derivative. The innovators whose efforts stall out are obviously groping for something original, but either have no vision or can’t express it in a way that attracts colleagues and patrons. I think it may take a rare confluence of cultural readiness, practitioner availability, and patron generosity to create conditions where a seed crystal can nucleate an artistic revolution. I hope that long intervals of novelty vacuum somehow allow culture to become supersaturated with “blah”, making it ever more likely that authentic genius will trigger widespread innovation. I’m definitely ready for another one.