The Power of Art, Right Now

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“Fruit, Glass, and Mandolin,” 1938. Georges Braque. Courtesy NGA.

I have been dreading this column. I have been scared and slightly nauseated by the prospect of trying to write about art right now.

I’ll forgo the tediously crafted litany of our global despair, as I have to assume that anyone reading an art column in a local printed newspaper has probably worked through everything else on the world’s front pages.

So let’s get right to it. What does art have to do with anything right now? What gives art the right to vie for attention in this moment?

Assuming one personally holds those answers is a bit too self-righteous for me. This column is not about the “why” of art amid the crisis. Nor is it about all the extraordinary people, galleries, theaters and small businesses within the arts that have found themselves furloughed, closed or otherwise crippled. My heart goes out to all of them, and I am reassured that arts institutions are being granted the same level of support and aid rewarded to other “nonessential” industries by the federal government.

But there is undeniably a bit of moral dissonance in agonizing over the suffering of the arts during a crisis like this, and I really don’t know how to square this circle. A wonderful quote by Georges Braque demonstrates this idea better than I can.

Throughout two world wars, Braque painted still lifes of porcelain vases, woven silk tablecloths and heaping plates of fresh fruit and fish. He was perfectly comfortable depicting the trappings of luxury while the world suffered around him.

But he also came from a working-class family — his father and grandfather were housepainters — and he abandoned his prolific partnership with Picasso at the outset of World War I to enlist in the French Army, where he was severely wounded in combat.

In a 1939 interview with the French literary journal Cahiers d’Art, he said this: “The painter lives through the age. But his work depends too much on the past for him to accommodate the changes of the hour … Let us distinguish categorically between art and current affairs.”

Art is a unique form, capable of succeeding in presenting and exploring a problem without a clear resolution. Artists spend their careers trying to crack the foundation, not repair it. I suppose that’s what I’m doing here. I’m simply asking these questions out loud, without any intention of answering them.

Because, despite the increasing existential pressure of our collective doom, art has been on my mind a lot. I’ve had more time over the past two months to think about art, and in purer terms, than I ever do when I’m working “in the arts.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Jerry Saltz seems to feel similarly. He says he’s been devoting his quarantine time to writing deep analyses of Pieter Bruegel and the color yellow (or something like that).

While my ponderances have not been nearly that productive, they have been relieving. I’ve been pleased to find my mind lost in paintings (mostly Manet and Matisse) and in turning over sculptures (mostly small bronze caricatures made by my cartoonist uncle), trying to remember how they look from the back.

I’ve been thinking a lot about drypoint etching (mostly works by Rembrandt, and Picasso’s “Vollard Suite”), how beautiful it is and why no one does it anymore (mostly, I think, because it’s a pain in the ass).

As a brief aside — although aside from what I don’t know — I’d like to say a word about etching. In recent years, I’ve been lucky to see etchings by many of the greatest draftsmen in history. Intimate prints by Michelangelo in the National Gallery’s “Sharing Images” exhibition. Whistler’s “Venice Set” at the Freer Gallery. Some 300 of Rembrandt’s prints in a knockout show at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam on the 350th anniversary of his death.

Of all the fine-art mediums, etching may be the most timeless. The artists I just referenced span 500 years between them, but any of their etchings would live as comfortably in a contemporary studio loft as at the Frick. The same cannot be said of “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”

This is probably because the fundamentals of drawing haven’t really ever changed (unless you count John Cage). What constitutes the matter of painting and three-dimensional form has evolved over the centuries beyond recognition. Etching, however, as a direct translation of an artist’s hand to paper, without any variation in material, color or texture, is at the core of all that is art.

Perhaps that aside was not so brief, but in a way it illustrates the value of art beyond a fleeting analysis of our immediate present, which I’ve never felt was art’s greatest purpose.

Art is — and in so many ways has always been — a journey beyond ourselves and into the realm of the divine. To that end, I think what art has the power to do right now is take us beyond this moment, if we allow it to.

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