So I want to start out my talking about art by talking about a book (which is largely about art): Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard. It’s not quite top-shelf Vonnegut, but it’s pretty good and certainly doesn’t deserve its obscurity. And as far as my life goes, Bluebeard was a big turning point in letting the idea of capital-a Art establish a beachhead in my brain.
Bluebeard is ostensibly the autobiography of Rabo Karabekian, a fictional Armenian-American Abstract Expressionist painter who became a national joke when the “futuristic” materials he used to create his paintings causes them all to fall apart. There’s a lot going on in Bluebeard, with time spent on the Armenian genocide and some admirable-in-intent-but-kind-of-falling-short-in-action feminist points being made, but the stuff that always stuck with me the most was “Karabekian” just addressing the reader and talking about painting and paintings (and since Vonnegut painted on the side, I don’t think it’s too outré to just read these sections as Vonnegut telling you what he thinks about painting).
The lesser thing that stuck with me was the book’s explanation and defense of abstract expressionism. When the book came out, the culture was deep in a knee-jerk “my kid could paint that” rejection of abstract expressionism. (Quick refresher: the gang of mostly American painters, largely after World War II, who tossed representation out the window and went straight for emotion. Think Pollock, Rothko, the de Koonings, and so on) Through Karabekian, Vonnegut makes a case for the movement: this is art purely for the sake of art, “about nothing but itself,” a kind of free jazz set on canvas. Abstract expressionism, he says, frees art of the need for narration and clarity and rules and just reduces it all to raw, chaotic expression, that the viewer will either have an emotional reaction to or they won’t. He’s not the first person to make that case—I think the Abstract Expressionists were the first person to make that case—but that’s the first way I heard that explanation, and it really penetrated the anti-intellectual “hur hur modern art sure is duuuumb” notion that I’d just kind of absorbed by osmosis in small-town Nebraska.
(I do think there’s another thing going on with Abstract Expressionism, with it being kind of the crest of the multi-decade wave of freakout that passed through the painting community after photography became ubiquitous and abruptly solved the problem of how to depict things realistically; but that’s probably a thing for another time)
But piggybacking on that is a bigger thing. There’s an aside from the book’s main narrative that I’ll just quote in full:
Circe Berman has just asked me how to tell a good painting from a bad one.
I said that the best answer I had ever heard to that question, although imperfect, came from a painter named Syd Solomon, a man about my age who summers not far from here. I overheard him say it to a very pretty girl at a cocktail party maybe fifteen years ago. She was so wide-eyed and on tippy-toe! She sure wanted to learn all about art from him.
"How can you tell a good painting from a bad one?” he said. This is the son of a Hungarian horse trainer. He has a magnificent handlebar mustache.
“All you have to do my dear," he said, "is look at a million paintings, and then you can never be mistaken."
It's true! It's true!
It’s a throwaway passage, and, judging by Google, not one that really hit home for a lot of other people, but somehow for me that was a powerful idea: anyone can be an expert on paintings if they just look at a lot of paintings. I guess you can read it as a form of gatekeeping: want to be an expert? Get ready to look at a hell of a lot of paintings. But I took it (and take it) the opposite way: everything you need is right there in the work, and if you just wallow in them long enough you become a master.
That’s been animating me ever since; that idea ended up shaping my entire adult life, getting me into museums as a visitor, and then as a worker, and then as a grad student. And 30 years after reading it, I remain 100% convinced that it’s true: anybody can be an expert in paintings (or sculpture, or music, or whatever) if they just absorb a lot of them and spend some time thinking about them. It’s empowering as hell, and if you’re reading this, I want you to take that idea with you. There’s always a lot that you can learn by external reading and study and such, but in the end if you’ve looked at a painting and thought about it and had a reaction, your opinion is an expert one.
I originally meant to pivot from talking about Bluebeard’s fictional portrayal of the story of the Abstract Expressionists to the nonfiction version presented in May Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women; it turns out that Vonnegut whiffed on a few things (remember what I said about feminist intentions falling short?). But that’s a giant can full of very energetic worms and I don’t want to go overlong, so I’ll save that for another time. In the meantime, go look at some paintings and have a reaction or two, maybe think a thought.
After all that, it’d be churlish of me not to recommend Bluebeard. Like I said, it’s not Vonnegut’s absolute best, but it’s really good and does have a lot more interesting things to say about art and war and trauma and societal dismissal of women.
Rebecca’s been really into cave art lately, and sent me this rad Barbara Ehrenreich piece.
OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over. If you know anybody who might dig this, please forward it on to them, or send ‘em the explanation link!