Houseguest from Hell Visits Cultural Capital of Europe
“I don’t know anything about art; I just know what I like.” So pronounces the houseguest from hell, for whom I took the trouble to plan a trip to Pecs. I thought she would be excited to find great Hungarian painting, ceramic, and sculpture unknown in America. But she knew what she liked—landscapes. Not contemporary. Not ceramics. She spent the day shopping instead of discovering Vasarely, Zolni, and Csontvary.
She’d said the same thing when I took her to an award-winning winery in Eger, where she embarrassed me and infuriated the host by announcing she only liked Merlots. Thus she missed out on tasting three different Pinot Noirs, made by the same winemaker in the same year, but grown in three different terroirs only a few kilometers apart. It was one of the most interesting and sublime experiences of my wine-tasting life; my taste buds received a new dimension of terroir. Drinking the earth.
I guess no one ever taught her. I was lucky. I had a mother who was relentless in pointing things out. “Look at that,” she would say, when I was an infant. “See the pretty flower?” As I matured, her pointing grew more nuanced. Today she takes me on tours of the Salvador Dali Museum, where she is a docent, and points out things I would never have noticed in paintings I have seen multiple times. But withal her ministrations, I still grew into a smart-assed teenager. Fortunately, I got my come-uppance. Thinking I was very clever, I spouted the same cliché about knowing what I liked, to an artist, who rolled his eyes and put me in my place. “I don’t know anything about nuclear physics, but I know what I like,” he said. So began the process of educating my eye and palate in earnest.
Knowing how to look and taste is not automatic. It takes effort and a willingness to go beyond the binary world of like/don’t like, to interact with the world as more than a remote control for dialing up familiar, easy experiences on demand, which demand nothing of us. To see, really see, takes something. But the rewards are rich. Take Vasarely.
I admit I had a bias against op art. I thought certain pieces were kind of cool, but I didn’t get it, until that day in Pecs. While houseguest from hell tried on shoes, I wandered the Street of Museums with a ticket that admitted me to them all. Since two of the museums I had planned to see were closed, I went to what was open. I entered the first of many rooms of the two-story Vasarely Museum, each filled with large images made up of lines in black and white, challenging the viewer to believe it was flat. Textures emerged. I viewed with detached curiosity.
Then something unexpected happened. It was in the third room, by which time my eyes had adjusted to the novelty. Suddenly I saw it: what he was doing, what he was trying to tell me about perception and illusion, about line and light creating dimension. As I stared into his light and line, disoriented from my so-called normal view, I felt myself peering into the very architecture of the universe, staring straight through the grid of pictorial illusion into the numinous. It was world shaking. Ecstatic really.
I never would have had that experience if I simply selected for what I liked. Joy awaits one willing to look without preconditions and see beyond preconceptions—and maybe even glimpse what the artist intended. Of course, I still have preferences, but, thanks to my education, my mother, an art teacher named Norman Raeben, and the artist who has long forgotten the snotty teenager he put in her place, they grow and change. Knowing what you like before you try it gets in the way of experience. You can only like what you’ve had before, and what’s the fun of that?
On the second floor of the museum, in the corridor, a couple stood with two young children. The mother had her hands on her daughter’s shoulders, who was standing in front of her, looking at one of the paintings. I could hear the mother asking her children what they saw, pointing to lines and perceptual tricks, helping them to see. I blessed her along my own mother for giving the gift of sight. Those children will have a richer life for her pointing and asking.
Call me a snob. I know it is not trendy. No one is supposed to think anything is better than anything anymore, certainly not art. All taste is supposed to be created equal, meaning Elvis on Velvet is as much art as the Mona Lisa. Those who choose Velvet Elvis are equal to a seasoned collector or DaVinci himself, I guess. But I’m not buying it. Postmodernism aside, some things are better than others. Love is better than hate, a tomato grown in real soil and picked ripe is better than a cardboard facsimile from a factory farm shipped from half a world away, and Michelangelo’s Pieta is better than Velvet Elvis.
There are standards and universals that cross cultures and time, which have to do with proportion, color, composition, and even, I daresay, the Golden Mean. Call it divine order. Call it the architecture of the universe. There is something that transcends.
As my favorite painting teacher, Norman Raeben, used to instruct his student, Bob Dylan, if you really want to see, it is best to leave your taste in the restaurant. If you don’t know anything about something, you can’t know what you like. You can only like what you know.