Tuesday, May 20, 2008

art for our sake

I have never liked the game: "What is your favorite ____?" You know how it goes. Favorite vacation spot. Favorite weekend. Favorite restaurant.

I think I dislike the game because it suffers from a certain philosophical reductionism that sucks all of the joy out of whatever topic is being discussed. But what I really dislike is when the game inevitably slips into personal recriminations that could only delight Niles and Fraser. "I can't believe that you really like that place. It is no better than a Denny's with pretensions." (I think I may have said that last line. Now, you know the real reason I don't like the game.)

I have a post card in my office -- a gift from a good friend. She brought it to me from a trip to Florence in what seems another life. The post card is as stark as its subject: Donatello's Mary Magdalene.

Not too long ago, a young (early 20s) fellow employee stopped in my office. Upon spotting the post card, she said: "Yuk! Like that's the ugliest thing I've ever seen. Why is it in your office?" When I responded that it was my favorite piece of art, she looked at me with the same wide-eyed amazement as the pictures of kittens that undoubtedly grace her bedroom walls.

But it is my favorite. And every time I see it, I see something new.

Donatello sculpted the piece out of wood near the end of his life. It stood in the baptistry before the great floods in Florence in the 1960s. When I first saw it in the 1970s, it was wedged into a stairwell of the Duomo Museum. Even there, it had a startling effect. My eyes were immediately drawn to her eyes -- and her hands. Her eyes have seen hopelessness and seek hope; her hands that have felt pain and seek penitence.

The most amazing fact, though, is that this piece of grand expressionism was carved in 1455 -- almost 500 years before expressionism was understood as a concept. Compare Donatello's use of angular form to recreate human emotion. They are not that different from the modern sculptures on the Passion Facade of Sagrada Familia.

The statue now stands in a gallery facing a crucifix. It makes a striking view. Theologically, I like the combination. However, artistically, it reduces Donatello's work to the equivalent of a papier-mâché donkey in a crèche. But I leave it others to make that judgment.

Having already trashed the idea, I will put it to the house. What is your favorite work of art? I think most of us would be most interested in your favorite piece of art in Mexico. So why not answer both questions.


Michael Dickson said...

I am married to my favorite artwork.

Todd said...

I am not very sophisticated.

My favourite Art would have to be Art Carney, right from Ed Norton on the Honeymooners on up.

I think one his best movies was "The Late Show with Lily Tomlin. If you get a chance, give it a watch!


wayne said...

It took me longer to read this post than any other you have ever written. Mostly because I was laughing so hard that I had to leave the computer and dry my eyes! I so wish that you had responded to that co-worker about her kitten art work. (pause while I continue laughing!)

Seriously, I think the human body in all its' forms is the most perfect piece of art ever created. I'll have to think about the other question.

Babs said...

It's usually whatever piece of art I have just acquired! I collect Mexican folkart and I LOVE that such incredible things can be created under such primitive circumstances and be so intricate, or funny, or whatever. I also love Haitian art for many of the same reasons........One specific piece that I love above all others? Impossible for me to select!
PS I LOVE Todd and Michael's answers.......

Steve Cotton said...

Great answers all.