Valuable Experience

Many years ago, Jen, my girlfriend at that time, visited me for a week in California. She was an art student and so I decided to take her to an art gallery. As it happens, the Getty Museum was not far from where I lived, and I’d heard there was a special exhibit currently on display. I was glad there was a special exhibit because I was not an art fan – which is to say, going to museums had not yet been added to my mental list of things I enjoyed doing. What did appear on this list was the vague concept of Special Things, and so we headed straight for the exhibit once we’d paid for our tickets.

The Getty had acquired a Van Gogh. A very small Van Gogh: it was about the size of a square dinner plate. It was, however, so incredibly valuable that the museum had cordoned off a 20-foot perimeter in front of the painting so that the viewing public wouldn’t be tempted to touch it or breathe on it. The distance made it difficult to appreciate the painting for its aesthetic value, but it certainly reinforced the painting’s specialness. It was like being in the presence of a celebrity. Leaning over the rope with the crowd, I had the sense that the painting was somehow worth more than the throng that had come to see it.

I didn’t enjoy the experience. It was easier once Jen and I moved on to the other exhibits. Now we could get close and look at the brush strokes and decide for ourselves whether we liked a painting or not. I didn’t really think I had that option with the Van Gogh. Plus, we could talk freely with one another, now that we weren’t in the hushed presence of greatness. None of these other paintings seemed more important than our relationship.

Driving home we talked some about the Van Gogh. It was more fun to talk about it than to see it. It was fun to learn what she experienced while she looked at it and it was fun to share what I experienced when I looked at it. I realized I valued fun above all other experiences. This seemed like a child’s view of life, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t choose what I valued any more than I could choose who I loved – which is how I knew I wanted to write about what I experienced, and why I knew I would marry Jen.

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New Life

For several years in a row we grew sunflowers in our backyard. The sunflower is an impressive plant in full bloom, and from time to time I would wonder how I would render into words what I felt when I beheld them. We eventually bought a print of “Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh and hung it in our living room. It seemed to me that Van Gogh had rendered with paint what I would have liked to render with words.

As I understand it, there are painters who replicate the works of The Masters, sometimes to be sold as expensive forgeries. Their technique is so refined that it generally takes an expert in the imitated artist’s work to tell whether a painting is a forgery or the real thing.

Whenever I hear artists, whether painters or writers or composers, discussing craft or technique I think of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and these highly skilled replicators. If a work of art were only a work of craft, of technique, why would anyone with such skill bother imitating what someone has already painted? Since you have the same skill as the masters, why bother with forgery?

The answer, of course, is that Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” was not a product of technique. Van Gogh perceived the beauty of the sunflowers within himself and translated this perception to the canvas. The technique aided greatly in this translation, but first and foremost came the perception. Moreover, after the perception and before the translation came the willingness to share what was neither Van Gogh’s nor the flowers’ but a marriage of the two.

This is not such a simple choice. The forger already knows how the world will receive what he is replicating. Van Gogh did not have this luxury before he dipped his brush. Such is the price you pay when creating something new. Technique without original perception is as dead as a hammer. Technique in service to perception can bring anything to life.

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