David and Art - "Learning to Like"

Nov 4, 2019

Art that may initially infuriate you may, given time, turn out to inspire you. 

One of my favorite writers is Christopher Hitchens. He was primarily an essayist who wrote on a wide range of topics, from politics to literature.  He also wrote a handful of books as varied as Why George Orwell Matters to the status of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum.  His most famous book was a best-selling attack on religion entitled “god is not Great.” He even insisted on the first “g” being lowercase.

I disagreed with many of his positions, but loved to read him anyway, and it turns out a lot of people disliked what he said but admired how he said it.  One columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian called him both “inspirational and infuriating.” 

This reminds me of art, where inspiration can come to us in surprising packages, sometimes in the midst of something we initially find infuriating.

I suspect that many people who might enjoy the arts sometimes run headlong into this negative reaction when confronted by an unpleasant work.  Someone feels an inclination to support the arts because he likes the work of a particular sculptor (say, Michelangelo), but thinks that modern and contemporary art is by contrast such an awful mess that it’s really not worth getting in to.  So he remains a Michelangelo fan, not an arts supporter.

I must admit I used to be pretty dismissive of art I didn’t like. I can think of a handful of painters and composers that I once didn’t like at all but of whom my opinions changed.  The painter Jasper Johns, for example, I once had very little use for. I thought the composer Gustav Mahler had nothing to offer me.  I put aside my initial distaste and the related assumption that the work could have little to say to me, and instead tried hard to focus on the art that was there.

It was uncomfortable for a while. I didn’t get many of Johns’ paintings but I kept looking at them. I didn’t like Mahler, but I kept listening.  Then things started to change.

Francis Henry Taylor, who was the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York back in the 1940s, understood what I was going through.

The word he used to describe informed appreciation is one that has somehow passed from our common usage, but one I would lobby hard to see brought back.  He said “Like muscle, taste can be developed only through exercise.  Objects which at first appear to be mere curiosities emerge with new meaning, to explain the social and political progress of mankind and to assist us in forming our judgment and refining our opinions and beliefs.”

With just a little effort, building taste can change how we interact with the arts.  But in our contemporary culture especially, we have to be reminded that understanding lots of art isn’t necessarily easy.  But few things really worth knowing are.