Marcia showed me a cartoon e-card today of some people on a bench in an art museum looking at the most famous of Monet’s water lily paintings. After a moment, a big black dog jumps into the lily pond, swims across the pond and disappears out of frame, and then appears beside the people looking at the painting and shakes himself, thereby spraying the people with water.
My response was to say, “That’s just what those paintings have always needed.”
Some time later, thinking about my response to the humorous desecration of that iconic work of art, I recalled the many times I’ve seen Monet’s water lily paintings on walls in various art museums. Monet made hundreds of water lily paintings, which is why they’re in museums all over the world.
I once was in a gigantic room in a gigantic art museum, and all the walls in the gigantic room were full of big Monet water lily paintings, all quite similar to each other. And though part of me thought the overall effect was beautiful, another part of me thought the room resembled a wholesale interior decoration warehouse – the water lily paintings this week’s special, the paintings being cranked out by the thousands in a factory somewhere.
Then I recalled going to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the early 1980s when I was a “successful” writer and I’d go to New York twice a year to talk to editors and visit my agent and go to plays and museums.
On this particular visit to MOMA, I was accompanied by a friend who was a painter becoming a professor of art. We walked through the current show, a retrospective of Andrew Wyeth paintings, complete with Wyeth’s sketches and watercolor studies for each of his famous oil paintings, along with the famous paintings themselves, and then we made a quick trip through the rooms of MOMA’s permanent collection.
I am the kind of person who, after seeing three or four great paintings, has no more aesthetic synaptic space in my psyche, if you know what I mean, so the experience of looking at dozens and dozens of paintings, one after the other, was dizzying and made of the many masterpieces so much annoying drek.
As we were leaving the museum, my friend said, “The arbitrary defining of culture by a few narrow-minded people.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, feigning innocence, though I knew the same was true of literature and music.
“I mean a few people in control of the cultural spigot determine what is defined and will be defined as ‘great art’ for generations. Never mind the thousands of other artists of equal greatness who no one will ever know about because they weren’t chosen by the privileged few.”
Some years later I saw the movie Basquiat, about the heroin-addicted abstract painter Basquiat who was chosen by Andy Warhol and a few other powerful cultural arbiters to be “the one” for a while, and Basquiat went from poor and unknown to wealthy and famous virtually overnight, and then he died of an overdose at the age of twenty-eight. The movie depicted the arbitrary nature of who gets to be famous and who doesn’t.
As my mother liked to say, “Thus it has always been.”
Which is why you will sometimes see a painting by someone not famous or hear a song by someone not famous or read a story by someone not famous and you’ll think, “She’s every bit as good as Monet or Dylan or Dickens, well, maybe not Dickens.” And then you’ll tell yourself that can’t be possible, that if she was really any good she’d be famous, right? So you must be imagining things or you had too much coffee or something.
But maybe you didn’t have too much coffee. Maybe a thing is great because the thing is great, not because someone tells you the thing is great. As my friend Murray likes to say, “When it comes to art, open your mind and trust your feelings.”