Saturday, June 11, 2011

On Art, Museums, Labels, Scotland, and Wine.

As much as I have difficulty answering the question "What kind of music do you play," I appreciate the need for labels. Imagine hunting for exactly what you want in any kind of store (clothing, music, book, hardware) without clearly distinguishable departments. It would be impossibly slow.

Sometimes, however, it's nice to move impossibly slowly.

One recent afternoon in Edinburgh, I went for a "wander" through the streets of the City Centre with two friends. We'd had a delicious vegetarian lunch at Henderson's Cafe (where the server looked at me strangely after I asked if the soup was vegetarian, as she mumbled, "Um, everything here is vegetarian." Delight!). Having already been to the famous Edinburgh Castle at least four times on previous trips, and being privileged to have two local guides, I preferred to just meander around the Old Town taking in the sights and not having to worry about finding my way home. It was perfect.

We stopped in at the RSA -- the Royal Scottish Academy -- just when it was beginning to rain. This strategic move reminded me of something Isabel Dalhousie would do -- or perhaps had done, seeing as I read all of those Alexander McCall Smith novels in a span of two weeks this past January, during a fit of mid-winter's depression. I loved all of the books, but especially loved the parts when Isabel would discuss art or browse at the RSA.

It's a museum, but then not exactly. There are works by contemporary Scottish artists, something that is supported -- believe it or not -- by the government. The building dates from the 1800s, brand new in European eyes, and is in the heart of the city, in the gorgeous gardens between the Old Town and the New Town.

What struck me from the first room in the museum was how not one of the pieces of art had a little description panel beneath it. Instead, there was either a red dot or not, indicating whether the piece had been sold or not.

At first, I found this frustrating. I was not an art history major, and despite having read many a book on the subject, I've never engaged in discourse about the strengths and meanings of visual art with anyone who knew better. There's only so much you can learn from a book. When I was staring at these sculptures, multi-media projects, watercolors, and photographs, I was struggling. What I should be seeing? Where should my eyes focus? Was the artist a woman? A man? A pauper? A spoiled child?

Eventually, I found a small plaque in the entryway of each room. It spelled out -- usually in an overly deep way -- the artist's general process and philosophy and never an individual piece of art. But still, as soon as I read one of them, I regretted it.

It turns out that I had a wonderful time browsing all the contemporary art without having known a single thing about the art or artist. I was able to simply enjoy it, or stare at it quizzically, or move on uninterested.

That probably sounds harsh, or missing the point. But as an artist (albeit from a different genre), I'm not offended if someone misses a well-placed half-diminished chord or a clever slant rhyme in one of my songs. I just want them to enjoy it. Or not -- whatever it makes them feel, as long as it makes them feel something. Maybe it's not even that. Sometimes the goal of listening to music is to make you stop feeling something you'd rather ignore.

Enough waxing philosophical. I think the point is that not feeling pressure to read the labels and understand it, freed me up to actually enjoy it. I've never been in an art museum like that before, and I loved it -- even if I completely missed the point. I actually wanted to buy one or two things, and found myself hoping that someday I'll be able to afford some original art. Although, again, that could have been me just remembering Isabel Dalhousie.

While having dinner with a friend last week, she told me about visiting a wine shop in Italy where you bought a card to taste 25-shots of wine or something. You wandered around the store, tasting various wines, and narrowing down your favorites ... without a single price tag. Now these particular friends could have afforded any wine in the shop, so there wasn't the heartbreak factor to account for. Still, it turns out that without a pricetag to dictate their taste, their two favorite bottles were one expensive one, and the other? A twenty-five dollar newer bottle. She said the same thing about how freeing it was to not have the labels all around, influencing your judgment.

It'll be difficult for me, but I think the next time I venture to an art museum, I'm going to ignore those little labels. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy critical thinking. But it's nice to take a break and see what you like without being told you should like it.

3 comments:

  1. Very well stated. Sounds like the best way to the whole "open-minded" approach.

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  2. Thanks, Scott. And yes, you nailed it ... "open-minded" is a much better term for it. Strange how foreign that concept can be.

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  3. I went to a wine tasting recently - there was a price list available but nothing that was laid out. My favourite wines spanned the price range, which made me feel good. My taste in ports, however, turns out to be prohibitively expensive.
    I like the idea that people enjoy my songs on different levels, too. I think a gallery is like a gig - people get a taste. If they want to buy the album (or picture) I think it's good to be able to find out about the artist. Perhaps paintings should come with the lyrics and an artist biography on the back of the canvas?

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