That's me, in New York's Museum of Modern Art, last Monday. The painting is by Jackson Pollock. New Yorkers, I notice, take pride in and are slightly defensive about their abstract expressionists, who seemed to capture the beat and tempo of that big, weird, and wonderful city's frenetic way of life. But many others have more difficulty appreciating such art, and, in fairness, the artists themselves wanted nothing less: their work was part of a quite self-conscious act of effrontery to mass taste and mass opinion.
At the National Gallery of Canada a few years back, I heard a woman remark about a Kandinsky, "I just can't get into the new stuff." New stuff? Had she read the little label next to the painting she would have discovered that it was executed in 1911 - probably around the time her grandmother was born. Still, I understand what she was getting at. There is something not merely difficult to appreciate but actually mildly threatening about art since, say, 1907, when Picasso did this. One experiences a slight fear in an encounter with Cubism, futurism, surrealism, and abstraction - not to mention some of the more peculiar forms of postmodern art. It's the same fear that a traveller feels in a foreign country where he does not speak the language. One feels no such fear in familiar surroundings - which in artistic terms means the more readily comprehensible world of portrait painting and landscapes. I have witnessed it myself a hundred times in the National Gallery of Canada: people hustle through the abstract galleries, averting their eyes, like somebody walking through a bad neighborhood, until they come to the comfort and familiarity of the Group of Seven gallery. "Oh," they exclaim. "It looks like the lake at our cottage." And it does: familiar and safe.
Do not think that I am arguing for the primacy of abstraction over realism. Rather, I am arguing that the really meaningful cultural experiences in our lives demand something of us. Great art — like great music and great literature —rewards us in proportion to our efforts to come to terms with it over time. Abstraction, however, confronts us with an additional challenge, for it suggests the possibility that it is just painting - that there is no content, only form, that, like the night sky or a flower garden, it is beautiful but has no meaning.
Or am I wrong – about the night sky and flowers, I mean? In the most memorable of all the lines in Conan Doyle's works, Sherlock Holmes, happening upon a rose, muses: "Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers."
That's a remarkably unHolmesian leap in logic, but the basic point, I think, is a good one. The presence of beautiful things in what is, at times, an ugly world, can furnish us with much to hope for.