Friday, July 20 , 2018, 11:43 pm | Fair 65º


Paul Burri: Struggling to Make Sense of Modern Art

Clearly, beauty and meaning are in the eye of the beholder

My greatest fear — aside from public speaking and being burned alive — is to be found a fool. That is similar to being thought of as being stupid or gullible.

That’s why I would rather give wrong directions than admit I don’t know how to get from one place to another. That’s why I can never say, “I don’t know,” if I think I can bluff my way through with falsehoods and inanities. When it comes to modern art, I often find myself surrounded by people who are oohing and aahing over art that looks like crap to me while I stand there wondering whether the artist isn’t secretly laughing at us on his way to the bank. I would hate to be one of those oohers and then find out that I was right in the first place; that the artist really had nothing to say and was secretly laughing at all of us for thinking that he did.

On the other hand, I don’t want to be discovered to be the skeptic who rejected something that was subsequently discovered to be as important as the invention of Preparation H or raspberry licorice. I suppose you can see how this might be a difficult situation for someone who also prides himself with always having an open mind. How do I do that and at the same time keep from being conned by every charlatan, whether he is the modern artist or the local used-car salesman?

I do feel that the appreciation of art is a two-way street. The artist is trying — I sincerely hope — to convey some emotion, some message, some experience to me. He does this by taking a blank canvas and putting whatever images on it that he feels are necessary to do that. There may be varying degrees of complexity in how he does that. The clearer his image, the better I will get his message.

On the other hand, I accept that I have an almost equal responsibility to try to meet the artist — if not halfway — at least some part of the way between us. This may involve studying his background, his milieu, his history (both in life and in his art) and whatever other clues are available to me. This should be easier for me the closer I am in time to the artist. To expand on that idea, I should have a much greater opportunity to connect with a modern artist than one from Neolithic or ancient times. But somehow, the closer I am in time with the artists of today, the more skeptical I am of their honest intentions.

Where is the art in a picture of 17 Campbell soup cans? What is the message in multiple pictures of Marilyn Monroe? Or a 16-foot-by-20-foot room filled with dirt 2 feet high? Or a picture of Mickey Mouse superimposed on a portrait of George Washington? What am I missing here? Nothing perhaps?

On the other hand — and you will find me using that phrase often — I often wondered what people saw in black coffee until I made a concerted effort to try it enough times till I finally acquired a taste for it. (Now it’s the way I always drink it.) There was a time, too, when I didn’t care for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But so many people for so long a time did like him that I made a conscious effort to listen to his music. (I’m still not quite there, but it is sounding a little better to me.) So is that what’s needed for me to do in the case of modern art? Am I missing something like I was in the case of black coffee and Mozart — and martinis?

I keep trying to keep an open mind, and then I had the opportunity to attend the opening of a new exhibition recently. It was a collection of about 64 mostly large paintings by an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. I didn’t think much of his work. But I did notice that many of the paintings were marked, “Collection of the artist” — (I believe the correct translation of that is, “I still can’t get anyone to buy this piece of crap”).

The next day I attended a panel discussion with the artist that was open to the public. The venue was standing-room only, so obviously there was a lot of interest. The panel consisted of the museum curator, three guest critic/curators and, of course, the artist himself. The museum curator opened the discussion with an extended litany of each member’s educational, professional and curatorial credentials. Then each panel member responded similarly. It was a remarkable demonstration of collaborative self-aggrandizement and mutual appreciation. This took about 30 minutes of the panel discussion, and then each panel member spoke for several minutes about the show. Well, not exactly — it was more like a recap of other shows that the artist had been in and the panelists’ connections with those shows and with the artist. Each panelist took great pains to refer to the artist, whose name was Charles, as “Chaz” — thus establishing for the audience’s benefit his connection and intimate relationship with him. The artist himself seemed totally unmoved by all this familiarity.

Finally it came time for the artist himself to speak. He was somewhat laconic — whether from a reluctance (or inability) to express himself verbally, or worse, from having nothing much to say in either medium — speaking or painting. Of particular interest to me was a short dialogue between the artist (or should I say Chaz?) and one of the expert critics. The expert began to analyze one of the paintings in the exhibition in which a young girl is shown pointing her finger at the figure of a woman who seems to be the child’s mother. The expert pontificated at length about how he saw that this was an allusion to the Annunciation in which the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear the Christ child. Then he (the critic) turned questioningly to the artist, obviously looking for some sort of corroboration. Chaz replied, “Huh?” Then after a moment he added, “Yeah, somebody mentioned that to me several years after I painted it. I found that interesting.”

Obviously the whole idea was news to the artist. Obviously, too, was the fact that the expert was taking the liberty of attributing great insight and deep meaning into a simple picture of a child and a woman. Incidentally, the title of the painting is, “A Family Portrait,” but the critic couldn’t leave it at that and had to find some deeper, “more significant” meaning to the thing. After all, that’s his job, isn’t it?

In another instance, the artist mentioned painting a small green circle in the foreground of one of his paintings and then went on to explain it as follows: “I needed to put something in there but couldn’t decide what. Then I noticed that the beer I had been drinking had left a ring on the table, and so I painted a green ring like the beer can stain.” I look forward to some critic’s studied analysis of that ring sometime in the future. I predict it will read something like this: “The small green circle is obviously a reference to the circle of life in which the central, contorted figure is entrapped. It makes the viewer wonder about his own mortality and his struggle to understand his own place in the greater cosmic environment.”

After all, his job is to interpret art, isn’t it?

— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business, but he is a small-business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE. The opinions and comments in this column are his alone and do not represent the opinions or policies of any outside organization. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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