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Taking criticism

A few days ago, we went to the “Unknown Monet” exhibit at the Clark in Williamstown, MA. We loved it.

For reasons I don’t understand and in a way I couldn’t predict, Monet has always touched me. Renoir I find merely pleasant, Gauguin cartoonish and obscure, Seurat gimmicky, but Monet I become inarticulate about. (And, I do recognize that I’m being way over-articulate – i.e., ignorant – about those other masters.) The Clark exhibit showed early drawings and pastels by Monet that I found revelatory and beautiful. With a few lines — clear in ink and smudged in pastel — Monet showed light. He also did this other thing I like, although I’m not sure it’s an aesthetic response: He made me yearn to be in the places he depicted.

So, yesterday I read a review of the exhibit in the Boston Globe by Ken Johnson. He was not sold by the exhibit. The works were not impressive and do not contribute to our understanding of Monet, although Johnson was pleasantly surprised by the caricatures on display, which were the least interesting part to me.

It’s a terrific review. I learned a lot from it. Johnson’s main concern is one that I’m sure is obvious to people who study art as opposed to occasionally going to a museum, but it helped me both understand and appreciate Monet: Breaking with tradition, Monet didn’t build his paintings on drawings. Thus, he was able to see light, not outlines. (I’m paraphrasing crudely. Read the review.) Johnson thinks that the drawings at the exhibit prove that Monet just wasn’t very good at drawing. The drawings are, to him, workman-like at best, and thus do not contribute to understanding Monet’s ineffable paintings.

So, do I now like the drawings less? To some degree, yes. Sort of. Skill matters to how I see art. Now a critic who has better grounding to evaluate the skill required has downgraded it. That does change the way I view the drawings. But skill is just one component. The drawings still have a transcendent quality: I look at them and wonder how a person could bring forth these scenes with just a few lines. The scenes remain living, drenched, inviting, loving.

Johnson’s review does the proper job of criticism. He contextualizes, bringing to bear knowledge and wide experience. He has changed the way I see the Monet’s drawings and pastels. We see through education and experience. But, ultimately in this case, the review hasn’t changed the way the drawings and pastels speak to me. If I learned more, though, perhaps …[Tags: monet art ken_johnson ]

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7 Responses to “Taking criticism”

  1. It’s a conundrum, isn’t it?

    The more you learn about something, the more you analyze it, the more you “understand” it, the less you have an appreciation, the less you admire its “magic”, and the less you have a “sense of awe” about it.

    It seems to be a universal trade-off, regardless of subjecct area.

  2. Actually, Eric, I disagree. The more you learn, the more you’re able to see what’s there.

  3. Agreeing with David here–I’ve been to lots of physics parties where part of the fun was somebody’s telescope. So here you’d have all kinds of learned PhDs oohing and ahhing at Jupiter’s little moons–a lot of the pleasure there being that stories about Galileo are a big part of mechanics and astro courses. So my view is that knowledge increases enchantment.

    There’s a difference between understanding and debunking. As for debunking stuff, I never met any PhD who could match my fellow sophomores when I was in college. “Love? Just a sublimation of sex, read Freud and you’ll know it.” “The moon? An airless satellite–amazing that some consider it romantic.” “Shakespeare? He panders to such low tastes, really tedious!”

    Thankfully (like Dylan) I’m younger than that now.

  4. Renoir “merely pleasant?” Shows me that enjoyment is a matter of individual taste. Renoir knocks me out.

    Thanks for the link to Johnson’s review.

    Here’s something I read in curatorial notes somewhere, maybe at the Chicago Art Institute: Monet’s London cityscapes are to some extent a record of modern air pollution. Their dark aspect and diffuse focus reflects the coal smoke that was pervasive there.

    Feeling like Betsy’s sophomore friend now. Better shut up.

  5. Thanks for the link to Johnson’s review.

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