Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Eye of the Beholder

One section of the New York Times we rarely even open. It’s the Arts&Leisure section, with Arts in bold and & Leisure in faded-grey. When people have unusual experiences, they say, instead of describing them, “It was, well, it was—I can’t put it in words.” Another equally apt phrase that here pretains are the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward, relating to obscenity. He said that defining it is hopeless, “But I know it when I see it.”

Today’s lead story is about money, really. It shows four images. One is of Elvis Presley as a guman, by Andy Warhol ($30-$50 million—the estimate of what it will bring at auction); one is Mark Rothko’s “Orange” (although it might also be called “Pink”), reddish rectangles ($35-$45 million). The third is Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” ($80 million). The last is Roy Lichtenstein’s “Sleeping Girl.” It looks like something I might have snipped out of any comic book—and that, presumably is the point of this oeuvre ($30-$40 million); the elevation of the extremely ordinary to the high status of “art” somehow speaks to something in the modern soul. Whatever.

What that lead page produces, with those pictures, is a sensation of dissonnance. All these things are “art”? Perhaps in a very elevated sense they are. They are if we buy into the concept that the artist’s role is not to aim at transcendental heights but, rather, to act as a mirror for society so that it can behold itself. Then these images are right on target. That’s what we are. And the limits of our transcendence are shown effectively by dollar signs clinging to large numbers—and those, of course, will bring the reverential sighs. Justice Steward is right on. I know it when I see it. 

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