Sunday, September 04, 2005

COLUMN: Art Appreciation 101

I so desperately want to be pretentious, highbrow, and artistic.

I want to be well-read. I want to be emotionally overcome by a poem. I want to dissect the hidden inner symbolism of a Bergman film. I want to appreciate the beauty of a simple sonata. I want to click my camera and instantly create a piece of art that makes people in tweed jackets go "Oooooh, the textures!" I want to wear black turtlenecks and make controversial statements in coffeeshops.

Sadly, I want all of these things for the wrong reason. I need to come to terms with the fact that I'm just not an artsy kinda guy. As hard as I may try, at the end of the day, I'm pretty shallow, self-serving, and cynical. That's why I'm a humor columnist and not off scribing the Great American Novel. That's why I own movies like "Pauly Shore is Dead" on DVD. That's why half of my favorite books are comic strip collections.

Yet, despite my ineptitude at artistic appreciation, I still routinely try to pass myself off as someone deep and innately artistic. Why? The truth is simple. My appreciation for art matters far less than my appreciation for artsy GIRLS, and I like to put myself where they gather. This is usually an exercise in futility, as artsy girls tend to overlook chubby newspaper columnists in favor of guys who wear leather jackets, read Kerouac, and smoke clove cigarettes while listening to minimalist German bands who favor sledgehammers and trash cans over guitars. Yet I sure keep trying.

That might explain why this past weekend, I found myself strolling through the new Figge Art Museum in Davenport. First thing's first: the Figge is fantastic. The building is a work of art in itself, let alone the impressive collection within. The whole thing's a bit daunting for a non-art person like myself, but the museum does a great job at putting up informative plaques to help folks better appreciate the multitudes of paintings, sculptures, and installations.

Too bad all I can muster in my head are thoughts akin to, "Ooh, that's a pretty picture." The whole time I was there, I was observing other museum-goers. I watched a girl stand in front of a centuries-old painting of Madonna and child (one of many at the Figge) for almost five minutes. I bet she was contemplating the historical signifigance of the piece. Perhaps she was admiring the artist's subtle use of background imagery, their brush stroke, the ornate detail of the presumed masterpiece. Minutes later, I walked up to the same piece, and the best my mind could come up with was, "Man, that is one ugly baby Jesus." Yes, I'm pathetic.

The one piece, however, that I really DID love at the Figge is sadly the one that's already left the museum by the time this column makes print. Friends had been telling me about Janet Cardiff's "40 Part Motet" since the Figge opened, but it didn't do justice until you actually experience it. Cardiff individually recorded all 40 members of a boy's choir singing one of the most intricate choral pieces imaginable. The installation is basically a huge circle of 40 speakers positioned at mouth level playing back the piece. You can walk around the room and hear each individual member of the choir, or you can sit in the middle and be gob-smacked by the coolest surround sound you could imagine.

I spent a lot of time at the piece. I wondered how she was able to record every voice individually. I wondered how they were able to play it back - is there a 40-track mixer hiding behind closed doors? I was amazed at the clarity. I was impressed by the sonic tricks you could get just by walking around the room differently. The whole thing was kind of moving. Then it hit me. I was (gasp) appreciating art.

Or at least I thought I was. Then I got home and Googled the piece. I found a review on an art site: "As the voices rise and merge over us, we are brought to a sense of honesty... We are not only in this room nor only of this world. We are reminded that each of us has a part in the intricate counterpoint of existence." The intricate counterpoint of existence? Sigh... I just thought it was neato.

Part of me wants to ban myself from high art, since I'm apparantly too lame to appreciate it on the level it should be. Then again, let the pretentious posse have their stupid symbolism. It doesn't mean I can't check out all the pretty pictures, too. Well, except for that one baby Jesus. It kinda creeps me out.

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