Just Say No to Great Men
I remember when CNN aired segments on John Adams’s operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer—granted both operas had an immediate headline news angle—but nowadays it’s pretty rare for a story about the arts to show up on CNN (TV or internet), or just about any other mainstream media outlet at this point. So when a story about the discovery of a new painting by Leonardo Da Vinci made it onto CNN’s homepage, I was beside myself with delight. Then I read it.
At first I was extremely disappointed by the inanity of the majority of the reader comments. If indeed such comments are representative of the readership of CNN, then CNN is simply pandering to its readership by ignoring cultural news most of the time. Then again, if cultural news was published in mainstream media outlets more regularly, perhaps their readers wouldn’t see the rare cultural news item as an aberration worthy of their collective scorn and derision.
However, when I read the story more closely I realized that there was something fundamentally wrong with the way this story was reported. I want to make it clear that I believe what was wrong was not really the fault of Laura Allsop, the journalist who wrote the item, or even her editors at CNN, but rather the whole way culture is still—in 2011!—framed in our society. It is presented as something rarefied that only a select few appreciate and to which even fewer can contribute, the immortal geniuses who are—for the most part—no longer among us. No wonder most folks think that cultural news is something that doesn’t matter to them. Basically, the same mindset that says that an appreciation of “great music” begins with Beethoven awareness.
Two passages in Allsop’s Leonardo article stuck out in my mind as glaring examples of how we incorrectly frame art, pun intended, and in so doing prevent many people from actually appreciating it.
The painting was sold in 1958 for £45 — about $125 in today’s currency — by descendants of British collector Sir Frederick Cook, who bought the painting in 1900. Today, the painting is estimated to be worth $200 million, according to some scholars.
There are currently some 15 authenticated Leonardo da Vinci paintings in the world. But they are difficult to attribute, because da Vinci often left his works unfinished and some are thought to have been worked on by other artists in his workshops.
While all of the above is factually true, the message that these sentences send is loud and clear: great art is something that is only created by great people. A non-great person does not create great art. But here’s the rub: the composition, the palette, and the brush strokes in that recently re-attributed painting are exactly the same as they were before people realized they were the work of Leonardo. Now it’s a timeless masterpiece, but that has more to do with our society—and our still not overturned aesthetic system based on the Great Man Theory—than this painting. Until we can look at a painting, any painting, or listen to a piece of music, any music, and respond personally and without the baggage of received wisdom, art will not be enjoyable and ultimately not aesthetically fulfilling.
If culture promulgation focused on the actual act of experiencing cultural artifacts—preferably focused mostly on things from our own place and time—we as a society might have a very different relationship with culture than we presently do. I contend that a far greater variety of artistic expression would reach a much larger audience. There might be a lesson to learn here from the media’s coverage of sports. Every day the mainstream media saturates us with images of excerpts of games from the local teams in whatever place we happen to be in. These are not some arcane acts done by people from faraway lands in distant times; they are acts done by people in our own community. To sports fans and non-sports fans alike, these games are news because they are happening here and now. When I walked into my office this morning I asked the doorman how his weekend was. He expressed that he was really disappointed because both the Jets and Giants lost. That blew my mind. Those games meant that much to him; the way they turned out actually ruined his weekend.
Of course that’s not ideal either. I also think it would ultimately be a mistake if we replaced the way we anoint classics with the kind of bandwagonism that continues to pervade how we absorb so-called popular culture, more than half a century after 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. (Curious factoid, RCA used that tagline for an Elvis Presley album only a year after that not-yet-known-as-a-Leonardo painting sold for £45.) In the final analysis, popularity contests have the same effect as a canon of masterpieces on stifling each individual’s own abilities to interact with culture.
Telling us to like something, either because it has been declared a masterpiece by people smarter than us or because it is already known by everyone else (so we’d be chastised for living under a rock if we didn’t know about it), eventually turns us into the kind of folks who post inane comments on CNN message boards.