It’s a bit embarrassing, looking back. I studied philosophy and history in school, read like an animal and wrote every chance I could. I was focused on thought and expression, but the role of art in all this never really occurred to me. My current interest in art grew out of a freelance assignment I had for a newsletter for financial advisors back in the summer of 2007. The article was short and dealt with investing in art. From there, I got my first art market story in Trader Monthly (RIP) – which was how I got into that magazine and which opened the door to my becoming a travel writer (I’ll get into that story some other time).
I now blog about art on Luxist more than cigars (with the latter being why Luxist hired me), and I’m really into it. I have an original hanging over my desk at day job and six paintings hanging in my apartment … with two more that I still need to pp on the walls. I was thinking about the extended version of how I got here, and my mind raced back to two college experiences. The first was more directly related to art, but the second was far more powerful (and I finally understand it).
During my senior year of high school/freshman year of college (they overlapped completely for me), I had an assignment for a British lit class. It somehow involved going to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (which is where I lived at the time). A history teacher I had in high school (my junior year) suggested I keep an eye open for a piece by Albrecht Durer. I found it, and it made more of an impression on me than the much more famous “Rape of Europa” by Titian. The Durer piece just captured me. I made eye contact with a piece that had been painted more than 300 years earlier and was nearly entranced as a result (Durer was amazing with eyes). It was at that moment, at the age of 17, that I realized I could enjoy art. It’s a shame it took me that long to come to the realization; I feel like I lost some time.
Like most lessons kids learn, it didn’t stick.
I may have popped in there again while home from spring break at Ripon, where I spent the last two years of my undergrad experience. I think I did, but I don’t really remember. It was my first semester at Ripon, though, where I got the Big Lesson on art and didn’t even notice. It had to ferment for a while – about 10 friggin’ years – before finally dawning on me.
About six weeks after arriving at Ripon, I was bored out of my mind, having let a handful of profs talk me into taking intro classes (because of my age), despite the fact that I was bringing 50 credits in with me. Looking back, I should have stood my ground, as a few other profs had advised, but I didn’t want to start off on the wrong foot (another lesson I learned – fuck other people when you know you’re right). So, I was looking for work and found a prof more than happy to give it – he later became my academic advisor, and the independent study he set me up with is ultimately what got me to change my major to philosophy.
Well, the first assignment was to read the first two chapters of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. To call that tome dense would be an understatement, but it remains my favorite philosophical work. The guy was a fucking genius, even if his own thinking was doomed to fall victim to itself. Well, I tore through the chapter on the rise and fall of cultures and next the one on mathematics varying by each of the major cultures Spengler described. That made sense to me, I could understand math, despite my tenuous grasp on calculus (which is grasp no more).
Then, I wound up in the art chapter (part of the second assignment for that independent study). I was scared shitless. I knew exactly jack shit about art and was immediately coming up with ways to bullshit my way through the material. I was able to hang on by equating Spengler’s argument about art to his argument about mathematics, which was good enough for the course (don’t get me wrong, I worked my ass off on this and knew the material cold, but I didn’t nail the art-related thinking the way I did the other chapters).
Now, it all makes complete sense to me. To boil it down to art as cultural expression is irresponsibly easy. But, that’s about it. I see art as similar to mathematics in that it is one of the languages a society uses to communicate its beliefs. We do that with spoken/written language (language being a series based on a set of 26 characters, in the western world, at least, while mathematics is based on 10) and math – think about the role of zero as describing what a culture believes. We do this with art as well, but without a discrete set of starting points, it’s a bit harder to grasp.
It’s taken me 15 years since I looked ol’ Albrecht in the eyes to really understand how this works, but I get it now (finally).