Saturday, January 03, 2009

Sickbed reading

Was the whole economy a Ponzi scheme? Probably.

But I retreated from news of the global economic collapse, signs that global warming is occurring more rapidly than previously thought, and endless war and hatred in the middle east, to read two books on the nature and meaning of art.

Why not? Even if I read the news, I don't think it would change my retirement portfolio much. Staying home to read a book is a low carbon activity. If I could broker middle east peace, why isn't my home more peaceful? I know at the end of a book, my portfolio of experiences and ideas will very likely increase.

I loved The Accidental Masterpiece : On the Art of Life and Vice Versa by Michael Kimmelman. Every elliptical essay is a delight, but difficult to summarize. Amongst other things, "The art of being artless" deals with the distinction between deliberately making art versus creating a keepsake or preserving a memory. It is not a sharp distinction, because the artless snapshot can be elevated to the status of Art, by chance and by the blessing of cultural institutions. There are also implications for today's culture of ubiquitous cameras.
Before cameras, educated, well-to-do travelers had learned to sketch so that they could draw what they saw on their trips, in the same way that, before phonograph recordings, bourgeois families listened to music by making it themselves at home, playing the piano and singing in the parlor. Cameras made the task of keeping a record of people and things simpler and more widely available, and in the process reduced the care and intensity with which people needed to look at the things they wanted to remember well, because pressing a button required less concentration and effort than composing a precise and comely drawing.
"The art of collecting lightbulbs" celebrates the idiosynchratic collections of individual collectors. While I don't have any interest in a museum of light bulbs, I do mourn that Mark and I never made the pilgrimage to the Barnes collection at its original site. The building is being demolished this winter, years before the new building will be ready. Why?

"The art of the pilgrimage" reminds us of a time before Art was removed from context and placed in museums. When one had to deliberately seek out individual works and travel to far-flung locations, the journey becomes part of the experience of the artwork. It is so different than the people who pour through the Louvre, marching past hundreds of pieces, asking, "Which way to the Mona Lisa?"

"The art of gum-ball machines" explains the depth behind pretty pictures of everyday life.
Children dawdle to look at what adults hurry past. They take time because they have time. They see the world through fresh eyes. Maybe this is why artists who push us to look more carefully at simple things may also strike a slightly melancholic note. They remind us of a childlike conditions of wonderment that we abandoned once we became adults and that we need art to highlight occasionally if only to recall for us what we have given up.
Believing Is Seeing: Creating the Culture of Art by Mary Anne Staniszewski makes an excellent companion read. It is unlike any other book about art, but I have a clearer understanding of "What is Art?" after reading it. Kimmelman's "The art of the artless" will make more sense if you have read Believing is Seeing.

I bought both books at Browser Books. My receipt says "You'll not only find the book you want, you'll enjoy looking for it." They are not kidding. This little bookstore in Pacific Heights (San Francisco) has more books that I want to read than most bookstores many times larger. I was so happy to find that they always stock Believing is Seeing, I bought a second copy.

I also highly recommend How to Look at a Painting by Justin Paton.

  • Do you ever buy additional copies of books you already own, just to prove to the publishers and booksellers that there is a market for that book? Am I weird that way?
  • I used to love Richard Hilkert Books in the Hayes Valley (another San Francisco neighborhood). I was sad to see it disappeared, and so surprised to overhear his name at Browser Books. I turned and asked the two men, "Do you know him?"

    "He comes in here all the time. " It turns out that Richard Hilkert retired to catch up on his own reading. A few years later, he was deliberately run over by a deranged driver on a rampage. After physical therapy, he's walking again and "as feisty as ever", according to one of the employees at Browser Books.


  1. My interest is piqued. Thanks for you constant supply of good read ideas! Happy 2009.

  2. My interest was also piqued when I first saw your listing on Goodreads; I am even more interested now. It is an interesting point about photographs. I discovered the same thing many years ago; if I spent lots of time taking many photographs, i found I remembered the trip less well, even though it was captured in film, than if I took fewer or no photos. It was not that I would draw the scene; I never developed those skills. I would write about each day, but primarily I would look more closely, which of course allowed me to remember more vividly.

    It is the same complaint I have about museums. They are too vast to really see much; I find them overwhelming. One room or a few paintings or works of art are all I can really absorb; after that I am ready to leave. My spouse however wants to see the whole museum to make it worth his while for the time spent. We have different views of what consitutes "wasting a day", he goes for quantity, but that approach leaves me feeling like missed everything and need to go back. I would rather see, mull it over, and go back another day. It does not make for efficient use of time. The idea of the journey being part of the experience sounds delightful; it requires one to pay attention and take more care. Too often the journey is just a "necessary evil".

  3. I can't believe I initially forgot to mention "How to Look at a Painting" by Justin Paton.

  4. I buy extra copies of books so I can lend them without losing my only copy. So no, you're not the only one.


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