Monday, April 24, 2017

COLUMN: Art Institute

I'm not writing this column just to brag that I saw "Hamilton" last week. Well, okay, maybe a little.

"Hamilton" is, of course, the most coveted Broadway ticket of the past couple years, and a friend of mine invited me along with her family to see the Chicago production. There isn't a font large enough to express my thanks.

It had me a little nervous, though. When you spend more than a week's paycheck on a ticket you have to buy almost a full year in advance, you darn well don't want to miss the performance. Ergo, we left for Chicago last Wednesday at 8 a.m. to allow plenty of time to deal with any unexpected hurdles, snafus, or hold-ups that life could have thrown our way. Thankfully, it was a snafu-free trip -- other than we now had hours and hours to kill before the show.

We decided to spend the afternoon coming to terms with a horrible and ugly truth about myself.

I've always considered myself to be a loyal supporter of the arts. It's pretty much all I'm good for, honestly. I'm not especially talented in the arts, nor have I ever considered myself to be an artist. But I'm darn good at appreciating them. I love going to live theater. I watch an unhealthy amount of movies and a downright alarming amount of TV. I read my fair share of novels. My love for music defines my life, my hobbies, and my friends. I'm a lousy entertainer, but I'm nothing if not a great entertainee.

Or so I thought. It turns out my life might be a total lie. Truth be told, there's one aspect of pop culture that's never truly popped for me: the visual arts. Try as I may, I just don't have an eye for paintings or photography or sculptures. I've never been able to appreciate still art the way that others can, and my lack of depth in that arena is my real secret shame.

Nowhere was that on better display than last week, when we decided to spend our pre-Hamilton time at the Art Institute of Chicago.

For hours, we wandered around those hallowed halls amidst one of the most impressive collections of art in the world. There I was, surrounded by definitive masterworks from the greatest artists the world has ever seen: Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Dali, Warhol. And when my brain was presented with some of the most acclaimed pieces of art ever created, here's what it thought: "That's pretty neat."

"Pretty neat." I'm sure that's the response Jackson Pollock was going for when he was declaring, "I am Nature!" and pouring his tortured alcoholic heart into abstract impressionistic masterpieces. I bet in the back of his head, he was thinking, "Maybe one day, a chubby dude from Illinois will think this is pretty neat." I stared at the canvas and wanted to feel his pain. I wanted to understand the statement he was trying to make. Instead, I thought the paint splatters were pretty. I'm a horrible, horrible person.

I'm sure some of it stems from my total inability to produce art of my own. I can't even draw stick figures that don't look horribly deformed, so don't ask me how Monet can beautifully replicate the Waterloo Bridge on a foggy day. It's magic as far as I'm concerned. And hey, it's pretty neat.

So it continued, from one pretty neat painting to the next. At one point, a guided tour passed us and I eavesdropped as they stopped before some presumably famous painting of steam pipes. "You can really feel the claustrophobic oppression of the industrial revolution, can't you?" remarked the tour guide. Nnnnnnnope. Just looked like a slapdash painting of some pipes to me. I'm horrible.

Finally, we got to the game-changer. "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," by Georges Seurat. Now THIS I know to be a great piece of art. Why? Because Ferris Bueller told me so. It's the central piece in the montage of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" when they go to the Art Institute. Just like Cameron in that movie, I wanted to lose myself in the details of the piece.

It's an example of pointillism, which basically means it's comprised of tiny dots of color that form patterns that become the image. And it's a HUGE painting. "This thing must have taken forever," I thought to myself.

And it did. It took Seurat three years to make. Good deal for Seurat, then, that critics love it. For every acclaimed painter in history, there must be scores of unacclaimed ones. Imagine spending three years on a painting that nobody cared about. In the grand scheme of things, if I were Seurat, I guess I'd rather hear "pretty neat" than have someone say "this sucks."

In the Seurat room, though, I did spot something impressive. At the far end of the room sat a young woman on a bench, staring intently at one of the paintings. It was only then I realized what she was doing. In her hands was the only artist's tool I've ever familiarized myself with -- an Etch-A-Sketch. I moved behind her and it was a near-perfect replication. I may not have any idea what I'm doing with visual art -- but let's see Picasso try THAT. Pretty neat, indeed.

So there's my secret shame. Hours at the Art Institute and the thing that wowed me the most was a $17.99 children's toy. Maybe someday I'll find a painting that moves me as much as a David Lynch film or a Cocteau Twins album. Oh, or "Hamilton." Did I mention I got to see it? And that it's super amazing? Not that I want to brag or anything...

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