Thursday, October 14, 2010

Art and basketball

I've long loved music, both learning to play and compose on the piano, as well as appreciating pieces of most genres. However, even with music I passed through a long phase in which the message or the content was more important to me than the style. I appreciated explicitly activist plays and operas, like Bertolt Brecht, and in general I preferred vocal music, because the lyrics could transmit a direct message. Even in purely instrumental music, I preferred either pieces that told a story or radical pieces that transmitted strong emotions. I also liked technically complex compositions. Bach, Wagner, Grieg, Mozart were in, Vivaldi and Brahms were out. And in my extreme focus on content over style, I even felt that composers were the real heroes, and musicians were replaceable tools.

But over time I've come to value and enjoy music for its aesthetic qualities too, for the prowess of the interpreter, namely for the sheer beauty of it. I'm not sure what Chopin's preludes mean, what Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is trying to transmit, or the exact message Itzhak Perlman is sending to me when he plays, but they are wonderful.

However, visual art never spoke to me so strongly. Again, I enjoyed paintings that depicted specific scenes, like the Feast at Canna or the birth of Aphrodite. I also liked the sheer antiquity of Renaissance and Medieval paintings. Also paintings with a little "trick", like Picasso's blue guitar player with a happy face outlined in the background, or Dali's visual double-entendres. And as a child I loved going to the Art Institute of Chicago and clandestinely touching ancient Babylonian or Egyptian sculptures. I would marvel that I was touching something a craftsman had worked on thousands of years ago (even as a child, I was sure to touch with the back of my knuckles, to minimize the damaging effects of my little antiquity fetish!). But as for style, technique, etc., I've never had much use or understanding for paintings and sculpture. I was like a child--I liked stories told by paintings, and I liked extreme gimmicks like bright colors or hidden things, but I didn't go beyond these superficial layers of appreciation.

Last month though I took my wife to Chicago's Art Institute, and it seems I've matured a bit regarding art. Obviously I enjoyed sharing with my wife the "Big Ones" of the museum. Seurat,

this guy,

American Gothic, Van Gogh, etc. But I also spent some time looking at Impressionist still lifes. I didn't take any good photos, but Gauguin's Tahitian paintings are sort of like still lifes.

Now if there's an art form that's almost pure technique and no grand meaning, it's the still life. What can a few fruits and a bottle of wine really be saying? I imagine that this subset of painting is specifically created and practiced in order to explore and perfect technique. With this little revelation, I contemplated a few such paintings, and I could appreciate the brush strokes, the depiction of form and color, and above all light.

I also looked at a series of Monet paintings of a pile of hay. He painted the same pile on different days and at different times of day, to capture the play of light, dark, colors, etc. The exact same scene looks totally different, even gives a different mood, depending on the light. This depiction of light has no grand message for humanity's problems. The hay stack has nothing to say about hunger or inequality or poverty. But light, matter, form are certainly no less real, no less central to human existence, than these other big social issues. So Monet, by exploring light and sharing with us his findings, does humankind a service, just as Mohammed Yunus does humankind a service with his investigation of poverty and microcredit, or as Carl Sagan enlightens us on the mysteries and marvels of outer space. They're all helping us to understand certain phenomena that define our world.

I by no means consider my self a grand knower or lover of visual art now, but I think I can appreciate more. Above all, I've come to a revelation: everything counts. It's not just the big social problems that are important in the world, or the production of food, or the study of ecosystems and wild animals. And I've learned that technique is important, just as content is.

It occurs to me that I should have already realized this. I appreciate technique when I'm fixing plumbing, or writing an essay, or rowing a canoe. Technique is especially important in basketball.

For the better part of my life I have loved the game of basketball. Whether I'm shooting hoops alone, or playing a full-court game, I feel like I express myself and arrive at a peace and understanding in a way I don't feel with other pursuits. There's no grand meaning, no social cause I put forth when I play. It's just the joy of technique, doing the right thing at the right time, and you know it's right not by some detailed consideration or calculation, but because of a feeling that goes beyond reason. Practicing basketball alone is like meditation for me, and playing with and against others is like a divine ballet of ten people moving, reacting, working in concert. Even when I used to play music, I never arrived at the level of expression and subtlety that I do with basketball. And I don't imagine I ever would arrive at this feeling with painting. So perhaps that's why it took me so long to appreciate the beauty and importance of technique in the arts--I mainly felt it in a sphere of activity that we consider separate from the arts.

Anyway, now that I've had this revelation, I'm seeing technique and inspiration at work in all sorts of new places. The other day my wife and I watched Carlos Saura's amazing film adaptation of Carmen. The dance, the passion, the guitarwork is all so exquisite. And it's something I probably wouldn't have appreciated a few years ago. Maybe even a few weeks ago, before my striking museum visit. In any case, I feel lucky now to have the world opened up to me in a new way.

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