Tuesday, November 4, 2008

We Know You All Too Well Here, Mr. Van Gogh

How can some of the greatest paintings of history also be the most boring? I found myself thinking this at the Museum of Modern Art's small Van Gogh show, while staring at The Night Cafe and noticing that it aroused nothing in me but a recognition of how little the basic elements of the dive bar have changed in more than a hundred years. Starry Night was even worse. I had trouble getting past the people crowding in to see it, and in just a few seconds had glimpsed enough to decide it wasn't worth the bother. Without doubt, these are great paintings. But we have seen them reproduced so many times that whatever power adhered to them once, it has been rubbed away by handling.

The age of reproduction has not, after all, marked the death of the prestige of the unique work of art. Just the opposite: the mega auction and blockbuster show have turned the iconic works of art history into super-objects for which crowds line up to parade past and say that they have seen the real thing in itself. But the more powerful the brands become, the more they deprive the paintings of any possible interest as works of art. Art is supposed to inspire transcendence, but the entry into that transcendence is novelty and we've been hit over the head with the Night Cafe so often that there's just nothing new in it to find. I got less out of it than I did from Stevedores in Arles, a lesser known, and probably lesser, Van Gogh, let alone from other paintings I chanced on in a stroll through the museum, such as Giovanni Pistoletto's Man With Yellow Pants .

Is Giovanni Pistoletto then a greater artist than Van Gogh? Well, no (and a dumb question: brand name art and the publicizing of auction prizes makes it inevitable that people will think of painting as a competition). But Man With Yellow Pants, a portrait of a man seen from the back, painted on a bright piece of steel that reflects the viewer--and so, as it happens, can't really be reproduced in a book and so is immune to the kind of assault against which a Van Gogh has no defenses--is clever. If I saw it over and over, I would get tired of it. But I'm not there yet. And maybe I won't be. There are paintings that we don't tire of looking at and can find something new in every time. Invariably, though, these are not the paintings that have been served up to us and branded “great” like steaks inspected and marked “prime” by the USDA, but those that feel like we have somehow discovered them ourselves.