Full disclosure: I had zero interest in going to the Louvre while I was in Paris. Being swarmed by 50,000 tourists all clamoring to get a Chevy Chase-like glimpse of the Mona Lisa was not my idea of a good time.
But I did catch the Musee d’Orsay and the Musee Rodin. And in both places I took up an internal discussion I’ve had going for some time. It’s nothing new; in fact, the discussion is one that billions of people have been having since time immemorial. It’s a question of art: what is it? What constitutes quality in art? And why does it matter?
As I looked at various pieces of art in the two museums, some of them really moved me and others didn’t. Some that were especially powerful had me contemplating time and the meaning of life and death, and what the subjects of the painting (or sculpture) must have thought they felt the artist was capturing.
For instance: the prevalence of classic themes such as angels and morality made me wonder about whether such themes even matter. I mean: if we’re really all about biology (remember Snowden’s secret in “Catch-22”), does striving to lead a good but simple life as a farmer in ancient times really matter? Why should it matter that that two lovers embracing are married to other people given the all-consuming passion they’re obviously feeling? And what does the subject of that statue feel when he realizes that those viewing this monument to his all-too-short life won’t really be able to tell who it is without being told by the artist?
But not all great art deals with the big questions. Or does it and I am just too simple to make the leap? The various still lifes done by great artists aren’t really about anything but a moment in time, right? But maybe they’re really about that moment and its relation to the continuum of time?
ARGH! I don’t know and it makes my head hurt to consider such things…but in a good way. Art makes you think and feel, and if it doesn’t, check your pulse because you may already be dead.
But then there’s the question of quality: what makes one piece better than an other? I know nothing of technique, nothing of the methods artists use to create emotion in a piece of work. But does that even matter? If a piece evokes strong emotion does it matter that it’s not technically “good?” Do Monet’s brush strokes make his paintings better than Gauguin’s or is it the subject matter that’s most important?
When I first came to jazz I asked a buddy of mine who had seen Miles Davis and John Coltrane play live what made certain pieces of jazz good (I’m looking at you here, Five-O Jay). As was his style, my friend evaded the question, but he did turn me on to some of the greats and for that I’m grateful.
I don’t know what makes Miles so great but I do know that when I hear “Kind of Blue” I feel better — about me, about people in general, about the world, if only for a little while. Similarly, I don’t know why seeing certain paintings makes me ponder and analyze and contemplate, but they do — before I run back to the comfort of a non-analytical life.
This debate about the nature and meaning of art is a good thing. It makes me feel more alive, makes my brain (and heart and soul) feel more engaged and vibrant, then I do when I’m not so prompted. That might be what I like most about Paris: the constant evocation of such feelings the emphasis on art provokes.