Reading Guide

The Accidental Masterpiece

The Accidental Masterpiece

INTRODUCTION

To live intensely is one of the basic human desires and an artistic necessity (pp. 2 – 3).

Of the charges frequently leveled against art and the people who make and seek to enjoy it, one of the most common is that it’s inaccessible, removed from our daily lives. In The Accidental Masterpiece, Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for The New York Times, makes quick work of that notion, instead offering a compelling case that there is an inherent connection between art and life, life and art. While we may not all be artists, or want to be, for that matter, we all can choose to live our lives, or at least we can choose to think about our lives, in a more artful way.

Although Kimmelman has an impressive command of art history and the connections to be made between different artists, mediums, and time periods, he approaches this book with a refreshing enthusiasm and lack of pretension that are the hallmarks of an amateur in the original sense of that word: as someone who does something for the love of it. The result is an accessible, enjoyable, highly literate read that is equal parts memoir, criticism, philosophy, and travelogue. Each chapter—whether it finds him hiking up a mountain, or sifting through a box of family photos—conveys Kimmelman’s sense that art is not separate from life but intrinsic to it, and made sensible by it.

Readers will find a diverse cast of characters discussed throughout the book, from well-known names like Bonnard and Chardin to little known and largely forgotten figures. Different chapters take us to places we typically think of when we think of art—studios, museums—but they also introduce us to unlikely locales like the salt flats of Utah in the dead of winter and the basement of a dentist’s office in Baltimore. In the process, Kimmelman reminds us that “artful things may often be ordinary and can easily go unnoticed,” and gently urges us to consider them in our own lives. Our ideas about art, he suggests, need not be confined only to the collections of musty, blockbuster-happy museums and of avaricious multimillionaires; art and much of what has it to offer in the way of pleasure and instruction can be found everywhere around us—in our daily travels, in our hobbies, in familiar things we thought we knew from front to back. And they, in turn, help us to understand the meaning of even the most difficult-seeming and inaccessible modern art.

If we can be more mindful of the existence of what Kimmelman calls countless accidental masterpieces that the world has to offer, we may yet learn how to appreciate the kind of art we thought we never could or would, not to mention many of those things in our lives we might never otherwise have given a second thought.

 

ABOUT MICHAEL KIMMELMAN

Michael Kimmelman is chief art critic of The New York Times and a contributor to The New York Review of Books. A native New Yorker, he was educated at Yale and Harvard, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and is the author of Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre and Elsewhere, which was named as a notable book of the year by the Timesand The Washington Post. He has written and hosted various television shows about the arts. He is also a pianist.

 

A CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL KIMMELMAN

You write that “seeing well” is a necessary skill when it comes to looking at art, and that doing so will serve us well in our lives in general. Fortunately, your book also makes clear that one need not be a renowned art critic do so. What are some specific things we can do to help open our eyes to this way of looking at the world?

To keep your eyes open can be remarkably difficult. People typically go to museums and feel that unless they have been told where and how to look, they won’t know what they’re seeing. So they don’t trust themselves to look. No wonder they’re resentful and feel left out. I know the feeling. It took me a while to learn how to open my eyes. Talking with artists helped. I once wrote a book about going around museums with artists and I saw how they looked at the same art differently, through their own perspectives, which proved that there is no single, correct way to look at art. That’s the essence of art—good art—that it refuses to be reducible to one message or idea, so the more you look, the more you can find. It’s a metaphor for life, I think.

A number of the artists you discuss in the book seem to highly value the idea of solitude, which, unlike loneliness, is something that can often be hard to come by—or even be disorienting—for many people today. Why do you think people are often so uncomfortable with the idea of being alone—whether in a museum or a crowd, and how can art help us better appreciate what it has to offer?

We’re all used to having everything made easy for us. For middle-class people, convenience is a part of modern life. Even museums sell convenience. We’re little caesars, expecting tributes to come to us in the form of traveling exhibitions of art. We go to the museum and take it for granted that Tiepolos have come from Vienna and Monets from London and Hiroshiges from Tokyo. But Tiepolo and Monet and Hiroshige made those works one at a time, and they hoped and expected that we would look at them one at a time, in the same way that we hope and expect to be treated as individuals in our daily affairs. I recall once going to Colmar in France to see a single picture, The Isenheim Altarpiece, Grunewald’s masterpiece. That pilgrimage restored to the act of looking something of its exceptional status and essential otherness. Some modern American artists have also constructed big sculptures in the middle of nowhere—the remotest deserts in Nevada and New Mexico and Utah. You’ve got to make a kind of pilgrimage if you want to see them. In the book, I write about going to those places, too, how the time and effort made a difference, how I experienced something of the solitary feeling that the artists must have felt in making these works. Some of these works are minimalist sculptures, which play off against the landscape and the sense of isolation. The language of minimalism doesn’t come naturally or immediately to many people, but coming to grips with it is also part of the pilgrimage, which I think speaks to a human element—namely, that not all art should come to us easily, and that it’s good if sometimes we have to go to some length to meet it.

While the spread of digital photography may mean that more people are taking more pictures than ever before, you point out that, sadly, this also means many of today’s chance compositions are gone with the push of a button. Does the impermanence of the medium make you worry that generations to come won’t get to share in the kinds of accidental masterpieces that are so delightful to stumble across now?

Like everybody else, I’ve stumbled across double exposures and overexposures and other weird amateur mishaps with a camera that end up looking more interesting for being imperfect, which is another metaphor for life, if you think about it. A chapter in the book talks about the serendipity of some of these flukish pictures. It’s true, digital cameras now let us erase bloopers and other signs of our humanity and fallibility, so who knows how many accidental masterpieces are being erased. But a deeper issue may be our new equation of art with perfection, an equation hastened by the spread of technology. We now expect flawless recordings by musicians, perfect photographs by artists. We have easy access to all this, which means that, as in so many other aspects of life, we prefer to cede these endeavors to professionals, figuring we can’t do them as well, as if something like art is worth doing only if you do it like a professional. Art isn’t about perfection. Before cameras, travelers sketched so that they could record what they saw on trips, as souvenirs, in the same way that bourgeois families, in the days before recordings, used to listen to music by making it themselves at home on the piano or singing in the parlor. There was a more intimate connection between the amateur musician or artist and the professional, because amateurs had firsthand experience. What’s lost today is not just the accidental masterpiece but also that sense of art not as a remote commodity but as something we all make.

We often think of creativity as being completely, sometimes recklessly, spontaneous and unpredictable. It was interesting to read over the course of this book how routine and habit help many of the individuals you discuss frame their days. How do you reconcile these two competing ideas of the relationship between structure and creativity?

They’re not contradictory. Artists are creatures of habit like the rest of us. I spent the better part of a year watching a painter named Philip Pearlstein paint a couple of nudes in his studio in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. Philip has been doing pretty much the same thing for nearly sixty years. His routine became my routine. I think in life, whether or not we’re artists, we all develop habits and routines that we hope to make creative, constructive. The cliche of an artist leaping from one peak of inspiration to another is basically a myth. Ask most artists. Philip a classic case. Chopin started every day by playing Bach. Beethoven took a walk. Twyla Tharp goes to the gym. Only by knowing what is routine can you know what is exceptional—which is to say, what is art.

Your story of performing in an amateur competition was refreshing for both the unexpected range of people who shared your passion for music and for the fact that music was not their primary profession. What can we learn by approaching art—or anything that interests us—with a similar amateur enthusiasm?

In the book I recall the old bureaucrat of Toulouse, whom Antoine de Saint-Exupery described as rolled up into a ball of “genteel security,” raising “a modest rampart against the winds and the tides and the stars.” I think we all hope to make something of ourselves that has nothing necessarily to do with money or fame but that comes closer to the essence of art. There’s a wonderful story about the painter Degas as an old man going every day to see an exhibition of pictures by his hero, Ingres. Degas was blind by then. He went just to rub his hands over the paintings—I imagine in the same way that adults caress their children: not just out of affection but to make some contact with what is dearest and deemed longer-lasting than ourselves. Many people were doing the same thing in that amateur international piano competition, in that they didn’t play like professionals, but they wanted to share some connection with art that was greater and longer-lasting than themselves. It’s to do with love, not careers. It’s why, while the best amateurs are as good as professionals, the best professionals are amateurs at heart.

The description of your son’s wide-eyed curiosity at the balloons and gum-ball machines of a supermarket is something anyone can relate to—even if it’s been ages since our own childhood. “Like all small children,” you write, “he occupies a state of grace in which everything is potentially fascinating because everything is new.” Since it is a fact of life that as we grow up everything may not be new to us for long, what can we do to be more open to these experiences, whether they be caused by a supermarket gum-ball machine or Wayne Thiebaud’s painting of them?

We all look to art to provide us with something out of the ordinary, which is a definition of art, but this doesn’t mean art has to be shocking or bizarre to be meaningful. Sure, history is full of artists like Michelangelo and Picasso who conjured up gods and mythological worlds, and tried to distract us from everyday reality, to elevate us to a higher realm. But then there are circumscribed artists, like Thiebaud, who slow our systems, calm our minds, and show us reality as we have probably not stopped to consider it. This inspired Proust to say “great painters initiate us into a knowledge and love of the external world.” He was talking about Chardin, who spent his entire career painting the same brown crockery and dead rabbits and little human moments like a little girl looking in a mirror while her mother adjusted her bonnet. Thiebaud paints pies and deli counters and spaghetti entanglements of highways—an Emersonian poetry about ordinary American life as being full of dignity and wonderment. The important thing about these artists, I think, is that they tend to strike a slightly melancholic note. They remind us of that childlike condition of wonderment you mentioned, which we abandoned once we became adults, and that we need art to highlight occasionally, if only to remind us of what we have given up.

How have all your years of looking at art changed the way you see the world around you? Similarly, have any experiences in your everyday life ever had an unforeseen impact on how you approached a piece?

I’d put it this way: years of looking have taught me that you never know in art or life. Something you think you didn’t like or dismissed or overlooked may turn out to become an object of deep devotion. I’ve disliked plenty of artists at first, then saw their works over time and gradually came around. The penny dropped. You’ve just got to keep looking. We’re all prejudiced toward some kinds of art. We’d be boring otherwise. But good art is humbling. It endures, which means it’s still there, waiting for you to realize what you were missing. When I was young I just couldn’t see Rubens, for example. All those fat people. Then I got older. Now I can’t believe I was so stupid and blind. As I said, in life as in art, it’s all about keeping your eyes and your heart open, which takes some courage and faith but always pays off.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. From big city museums to small town festivals, opportunities to experience art can be found almost any place you look. Why do you go to museums and art galleries? Do you enjoy doing so alone or with others? What do you take away from the experience, and how might that change after reading this book?
     
  2. When was the last time you had a truly memorable experience involving art? What are some of the factors that came together to make it so? Was it a favorite artist? Someone new to you? How does this compare to other memorable moments in your life?

  3. What do you make of Bonnard’s declaration that, “What attracted me was less art itself than the artist’s life and all that it meant for me,” and what does Kimmelman suggest we might learn from how the painter spent his days living and working?

  4. Describe a work of art, music, or literature that you might not have appreciated at first but has come to affect you differently over time. Did you experience a eureka! moment, or was it a gradual development over time? What prompted this new outlook?

  5. Thomas Walther’s collection of anonymous snapshots assembled over several years demonstrates that anyone with a camera may have taken their fair share of accidental masterpieces: lopsided compositions, double exposures, and chance abstractions that, though discarded, make for compelling photographs. Have you ever picked up similar pictures from rummage sales or flea markets? If so, what kinds of pictures attracted you? Did you view them as art, or simply someone else’s throwaway snapshots?

  6. For several of the artists introduced in the book, the lives they lived often rivaled the art they created; Ray Johnson, for example, turned his own death into what was arguably his most compelling work ever. While we may not all be artists, the author argues that there are elements of art in all our lives depending on how we choose to live them. How has this book made you more aware of some you may not have considered?

  7. It’s often said that “getting there is half the fun.” From Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty to Donald Judd’s military-base-turned-art-museum, many great works of art—and worthwhile things in life—ask a lot more of us than a simple trip across town. Whether it’s a vacation with your family or a trip to an exhibition, how important is “the journey” to you? Does it enhance or detract from the overall experience?

  8. In his account of the globetrotting adventurer Frank Hurley, Kimmelman suggests that his creativity suffered when his life became more comfortable and less single-minded. “When Hurley gained choices, he lost focus,” he writes. Today, when we encounter countless choices about nearly every aspect of our lives, what might we learn from his example?

  9. The notion of Kunst- und Wunderkammern or “Wondercabinets” may seem a bit antiquated today, but they gave their owners an opportunity to gather together all kinds of things that brought elements of beauty and surprise to their lives. Imagine a modern day Wunderkammern of your own design. What kinds of things might you select of your own?

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