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David and Art - Something to Talk About

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When we talk about art that interests us, it becomes a more enriching part of our lives.

12 years ago, when this show was actually a newspaper column, I began it by saying that art thrives when we talk about it and that’s what I was going to do. Conversation to the arts, I said back then, is like oxygen to fire. So, last week, a colleague came up to me in the history building and said I’ve been meaning to ask you something: Why is it that art is better when we talk about it? We chatted for a little bit and I thought about what he was asking. It’s a fair question and if I’m going to go around saying it, I should know what I mean.

When I say art is better when we talk about it, I don’t mean that a painting becomes somehow better when people comment on it. Although it’s the case that talking about a painting, or piece of music, or play gives it greater life, what I really meant was that when we talk about art, it becomes more vivid to us...to ourselves. It becomes more real; it becomes more important to us. We’re drawn further into it when we talk to others about it.

There’s much about art that’s subjective— that depends on our interpretation of it. We bring something to the table, as they say, when we have an encounter with art.

Art has this in common with what we call “the great books.” When we read them, we bring our own particular ideas, insights, and changing experiences with us that help us understand more deeply what we’re reading. That’s why a great book can be re-read time and time again and you can still get new things out of it. It’s not that the book is changing, the words are all still the same; it’s that you are changing. Art is like this too. You can approach a painting that you’ve seen 100 times and if it’s good, you can get something fresh out of it nearly each time. Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is like that. Every time you see it, the painting is still the same as it was in 1560. But you, you’re changing, you’re getting older and wiser, and when you talk about something like this with someone else, you realize you’re getting things out of that painting that you didn’t perceive before.

When we talk with others about those ideas and insights, we help each other develop a clearer, deeper understanding of what we’re looking at. My friend Stephen can listen to Mahler and get things out of it that I don’t, but once we talk about it, I begin to hear it through ears that are now informed by his experiences.

I think that people see more barriers to art than there really are. The perception is there that to appreciate art, you have to know a lot going in. That’s not really the case and when you talk with people about it, you start to perceive that. There are technical absolutes in jazz or opera or minimalism or Rembrandt that don’t really depend on opinion, but your impression of what you see and hear is up to you. It’s these impressions, as we talk about them, that draw us deeper into larger world.