onement I

the other night i went to b scene at the blanton museum with a few friends.  b scene is this once-a-month event where they keep the museum open late and have music and serve alcohol.  i was excited about the beer-and-art prospect until i noticed that they wouldn’t let you take any drinks into the art rooms.  but i suppose the rule makes sense.  what if you noticed a shocking painting and did a spit-take?  beer and spit are not good for art; that’s one of the first things they teach you in art history class.

so we drank our beer and then went upstairs.  i was an art history minor at UH, and i quite like art museums.  when i notice a familiar painting from afar, i like to play this game where i try to figure out who the artist is before i look at the card.  if i’m right about the artist, i win!  it’s a game i usually play in my head; playing it out loud might make me look pretentious.

i guess i must have been feeling pretentious that evening, because when i saw a familiar painting (not that one, but one just like it), i turned to my friend mando and said, “ooh!  i bet that’s adolph gottlieb.”  we went closer to look at the card, and i was right!  it was adolph gottlieb.  “i was right!” i said to mando.  “it was adolph gottlieb.”  i explained about the game and we had a good laugh.

a group of people on a nearby bench must have overheard me, because one of them said, “so you know who that artist is?”

“oh!,” i said, surprised.  “yeah, i’ve heard of him.”

“do you know a lot about art?” the same guy asked.

“a little.  i was an art history minor, but that was awhile ago.”  i explained about the game.

“what do you think the painting means?” he asked me.

i began to get nervous.  i didn’t want to be one of those people, the ones who try to act like they know more about art than they really do.  “well, adolph gottlieb was an abstract expressionist, and they dealt in the subconscious quite a bit.  truthfully, i have no idea what it means.”

another person on the bench spoke up.  “maybe the top part is the abstract, and the bottom part is the expressionism,” he said.

“that’s awesome,” i said, laughing.  “i like it.”

“what do you think the artist meant when he painted it?” the first guy said.

“that’s hard to say,” i said.  “but artistic intent is often separate from viewer interpretation.  sometimes people get more out of a work of art than what the artist intended, you know?  and sometimes they get less.  i’ve been to a lot of art museums with different people, and with some of the abstract expressionist stuff a lot of people say things like, ‘why is that in an art museum?  i could have painted that myself.'”

“so how do they decide what to put in art museums, then?  how do they decide what’s good?”  the second guy said.

“here’s the thing,” i said, my nervousness going away, “when people say ‘i could have painted that myself,’ i think about this: a) you didn’t, b) you couldn’t do it now because that artist did it first, and c) when the artist made that work, he or she had something specific and original to say with it.  barnett newman made these paintings that were just a single line of paint down a canvas.  he used masking tape to get the line straight and keep the paint where he wanted it, and that was pretty much all he did.  but he did it because he thought that the single straight line was primitive man’s first form of communication, like taking a stick and drawing a line in the sand.”

“that’s pretty cool,” said the first guy.

“it is, isn’t it?  that’s why those paintings are in art museums.  and here’s the other thing.”  i was really on a roll now.  “pretty much all of these artists who are famous for painting dots and lines and squiggles know how to paint in the classical sense.  i took this painting class once, and i told my teacher i wanted to paint like a surrealist.  she said that all the surrealists, before they painted anything surreal, had to learn how to paint for real first, and that it was important to learn the rules before you could subvert them.  and i think that’s probably true of all these guys.  most people who say, ‘i could have painted that,’ can’t say that about themselves.”

“that makes sense,” said the second guy.

“hey, thanks for talking to us,” the first guy said.  “we appreciate it.”

“oh, no problem,” i said.  “i usually play that game by myself because i don’t want to sound too pretentious, but this was a lot of fun.  thank you.”

as i walked away it was all i could do to keep myself from skipping.  talking about art for the first time in forever felt good, like stretching muscles i’d forgotten i had in the first place.