A Barrier Between You and the Art? Try Looking in the Mirror.

I’ve just come from a viewing of The Letter on the venerable TCM. It’s a 1940’s studio system product (in the best sense) from wartime Warner Brothers.  I saw the same movie decades ago at a repertory house in the Village. One of those down and out movie houses of those days that made for a cheap evening since the tickets would have cost just a few bucks. The theater would have needed a good cleaning, They always did.

The audience for that viewing was a young crowd and the place was packed. When Bette Davis showed a cool poise in a key early scene after she had shot her lover, the audience laughed at her. That startled me, knowing the movie very well…or I thought I knew it well. It’s clear that the audience was knowing it in a different way. Laugh? At a scene the audience for the film in the 1940’s would have taken very seriously? Presentism. Expecting the art of another era and society to mirror your own and offering ridicule or taking offense if it doesn’t. They are not us; we are not them, those quaint 1940’s people. The eccentric idea of a Hollywood studio system!

One time I was discussing a De Kooning painting with a friend. We were both familiar with the painting in the Met’s modern art collection. Maybe one of the famous Woman paintings, I don’t recall. As we waded into what turned into a debate about the De Kooning, I realized I was in deep trouble. It’s called “abstract expressionism”, but it was so like me to emphasize the “abstract” part and discount the “expressionism”. My friend made me realize I had denatured the painting. I had gotten it all wrong. I was startled that I could be found out as not getting the point of the De Kooning, an artist that I loved. I thought I was cool at this stuff. No one wants to be wrong about what they love. That challenges whether the love is real.

Your own expectations can defeat you. I’ve never seen a performance at Lincoln Center without having a drink first. Celebratory champagne in the early years. To celebrate that a working-class kid like me actually made it to Lincoln Center. Later the preference being brandy, for endurance, a grayer virtue. Why the alcohol? To deaden my attitude. If you could look at art without expecting anything, with no presumptions, that might give you a divine perspective. Or conversely, it might mean you’re looking at art like a cow.

How can art “write on my wall” if I’ve overwritten on that wall myself? Like our social media dystopias: It’s all about me followers! Whether you want it to be about me or not. You’ll have to excuse me while I modestly praise myself…what BS! The philistine praises themself. It’s self-definitional.

In Practical Criticism, I. A. Richards conducted a wicked experiment. He asked lit graduate students to evaluate samples of verse but didn’t tell the students who wrote the poems. The most common error in evaluation, and the most common way to be misled about the quality of a poem is to think: “This is not right because it’s not what I expect.” You should channel the artist, not complain that the artist isn’t channeling you. If I could get into Mozart’s head while listening to one of his symphonies, then I could meet the artist face-to-face. Impossible? Let’s give it a try anyway.