You know how it is when something catches your eye and you just have to post on it... well, it was this headline in Monday's Independent:
To like a work of art you have to know something about it. That worries me.
And yes, it worried me, too. The article was the work of Rebecca Frost. Her worry, like mine, was the implication that in order to like a work of art you have to have background information about it, know a bit about its history or something of its creator, a bit of bio or a bit of context. As I read on I realised that she was echoing thoughts that I myself had been having recently. Like hers, mine had arisen in conversation with a friend. She had gone to The Rothko Exhibition with a pal from way back, probably one of the cleverest people I have ever met.
Frost most often visits exhibitions alone and so is not in the mental gear perhaps for talking about the exhibits. As she put it, her habitual response is a visceral one, but on this occasion her friend was so forthcoming about the exhibits that she felt some response other than a purely gut reaction to be called for. She was enjoying the exhibition, for she likes Rothko, and as a student had prints of his work on her walls, but she was feeling duty bound to comment. Alas, she was also feeling ill-equipped to do so, believing that she had not the wherewithal - not in the presence of her clever clogs friend, I presume. Or maybe there was something else: it's one thing to say that you just love a Turner or a Constable and to leave it at that, but if what you are saying you adore happens to be two slabs of contrasting colour, then maybe you could feel some compulsion to explain yourself. So she mumbled something about preferring the ones with smudgy edges - and then remembered that Rothko had said: The people who weep before my paintings are having the same religious experience that I had painting them. Emboldened, no doubt, Frost confided also that the orangey ones sort of zing out at you, before also recalling how Rothko had gone on to say: and if as you say, you are moved only by the color relationships, then you are missing the point. She liked the paintings, she protested, but there was Rothko telling me from beyond the grave that I'm not liking his paintings in the right way. I liked his paintings, but the way I liked them was wrong. She was not having the correct religious experience, it seems, not the one Rothko had, after all!
I know a little about those religious experiences. In my teens I had a good friend who was a Billy Graham convert. We went around for a bit with other born again Christians, all very earnest and extremely good people. A lot of needy folk benefited from knowing them, but there was one aspect that really killed it for me: their insistence that your experience had to be the same as theirs, or it was not a genuine experience. If it had not happened to you in just the way it had for them, then you didn't know their Lord. There were no alternative routes to salvation. I remember, too, some of the casualties of that: youngsters who had invested so much in what they thought (knew?) to be a genuine conversion, but who were devastated to be told that it was not so. They were like small lads who had saved up all their pocket money for one extra-spectacular firework on Guy Fawk's night, only for it to fizzle out in the rain.
So, Aha! I thought at this point, remembering Wallace Stevens's belief that when you finally give up on empty heaven it is poetry that steps in and offers the redemption that once was religion's to bestow. Aha! Rothko has trod the same minefield I thought. It all fitted as my mind ran on ahead making its usual unwarranted connections. Frost reined me in, making the valid and very telling point that novelists and poets do not make such demands upon their readers. Only the visual artists do that. I wonder why. Why should that be? Whatever, there was I shot down in flames.
(One naughty thought did occur at this point: for someone who professed to having no background knowledge of the Rothko's, Frost did seem remarkably well informed about their creator.)
And then she and her friend found themselves in the last room where were the overpowering (I would have said awesome had I not promised myself, a long time ago, not to use that word) Black on White paintings. I got the feeling that it was in some fear that she waited to hear what her friend would say of these mighty works. And what her friend said was : Let's go and have a cup of tea!
Ah, but what if they had been able to go back after the cup of tea? Going to a Rothko show is a bit like going to a prayer meeting - and there are prayer meetings where it is perfectly acceptable to stay silent, where it behoves you to do so unless you are given something to say. You can't though, not so easily, have a cup of tea in the middle of a prayer meeting. Not usually, though maybe you should be able to. To most, though, it would seem sacrilegious. Still, I have a feeling that, refreshed after their cup of tea... after all, man cannot live by prayer alone.
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