Living with Art

photo by Frank Beck
by Mona Molarsky

Yes, I adore beautiful cabinets and fine upholstery, and I have been known to covet rugs far beyond my budget. But, to me, an apartment or house, no matter how good its design, or how lovely its furniture, is soulless without art. A beautifully-proportioned sofa or well-built bureau may be fine craftsmanship, but a painting on the wall, or a piece of sculpture standing on a table, is something else entirely. It’s a voice that asks you to interact with the sensibility of the artist. If you look at it, a work of art will say, “I have something to tell you. I’ve got a distinctive way of viewing the world and I want you to see things my way, at least for a few minutes!”

The language of a painting is, of course, color, line and texture. Its message isn’t something that can be shoehorned into words, although we’re often tempted to try. Instead, it’s more like a melody played on a violin or clarinet, or maybe the polyphonic beats of a talking drum. The same holds true of a photograph, etching, drawing, watercolor or collage. Each is the expression of an individual artist. And each will speak to those willing to stop and listen.
I know because I’ve spent my life listening. The house I grew up in was filled with art—mostly the paintings of my grandfather, who came to the United States from the Ukraine, and died when I was an infant. While I have no memory of the man, I’ve been hearing his voice since my eyes first focused. He talks of dreamy villages, nestled among hills, of colored clouds that curl around trees. He talks of lonely figures, trudging along country roads and of church steeples, far in the distance.
New York living room, Mona Molarsky

Visions of the Old World

Although he was born in the Old World, before the first Great War, my grandfather’s village is not the village of Monet, Van Gogh, or even Chagall. It’s his very own, a place that existed only in his head. “Come with me,” his paintings say, “And I will show you around.” So it is with the work of every artist. You’re offered an invitation. Accept it, if you want to see the world as someone else does, at least for a while.
The Village by Abram Molarsky, courtesy of Mona Molarsky
The Park in Snow by Abram Molarsky, courtesy of Mona Molarsky
Through the Trees, by Abram Molarsky., courtesy of Mona Molarsky

Contrasting Voices

There came a time, in the 1960s, when my grandfather’s artistic voice felt too dominant. My mother, an art student, decided to hang some of her own pastels as well as several still lifes of flowers by my grandmother. And then she acquired three etchings by the German artist Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945).
783px-'Die_Gefangenen'_(The_Prisoners)_by_Käthe_Kollwitz,_Honolulu_Museum_of_Art
Kathe Kollwitz, "The Prisoners" from Wikimedia Commons
My mother loved these powerful and somber works—so different from my grandfather’s color-drenched, Post-Impressionist landscapes. But, I realize now, she also wanted to counter his male voice with a strong female sensibility. Kollwitz’s etchings didn’t harmonize with the dreamy paintings and pastels; they offered stark contrast. Sometimes it seemed the pieces on our walls were locked in a battle over the meaning and purpose of life. I suspect my mother liked it that way. The spirit of those walls reflected the fierce political arguments taking place at our dinner table—and in much of America during that tumultuous decade.
Years later, I would make choices similar to my mother’s as I bought bold charcoal drawings and black-and-white Mexican lino prints, also with social justice themes. These graphic pieces spoke to one part of my personality, while my grandfather’s village landscapes spoke to another. Somehow, I needed both—the soft and the hard, the dreamy and the pragmatic—in order to feel balanced.
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The Firing Squad by Leopoldo Mendez, Art Institute of Chicago
Anyone who brings art into the home enters into an ongoing, organic relationship with each piece. You may find yourself hanging and rehanging works, reframing them, moving them from room-to-room, placing them higher and then lower. There may be days when you’re eager to pull things down and sell them or stash them in the closet.
And, if you’ve chosen well, there may be days when a work of art will save you from the blackest depths. Art can do that. It’s the stuff of the human soul.

How to Buy Art

Denver visual artist Paul Weiner in his studio

Some begin acquiring art as I did, with gifts from family or friends. You’ll be very lucky if this happens to you. But most people who want art in their homes must go out and look for it. This can be exciting but stressful. Take your time with each art work. Study it for a while. Have a conversation with it before bringing it home. Think of it as a stranger you’ll be inviting into your space.

As your art collection grows, you’ll want to consider the variety of the voices you’ve acquired. Do the works speak to each other? Do they harmonize on your walls? Or do they argue with and contradict each other? In buying and hanging art, there is no right or wrong way to do it. But you should make your choices with intention.

My advice is to shop in low-key, calm environments where you can actually hear the voices of the artworks. Unless you have nerves of steel, steer clear of fast-paced bidding wars with big bucks and anything that smacks of speed dating. Most artists no longer alive would roll over in their graves if they knew their work was changing hands this way. And many living artists may well end up in early graves as a result of a hopped-up market.

Your financial situation will partly determine where and how you find your art. Some people shop high-end galleries, auction houses and art fairs. Others find what they love at thrift stores, on eBay or on city sidewalks. There is also the possibility of studio visits, if you know particular artists whose work you like. In truth, there is not always as much correlation among venue, price and quality as you might think.

A New York journalist, Mona Molarsky writes about art and culture. She also teaches writing and counsels high school students as The College Strategist. 

How to Look at Art

The British critic Herbert Read once remarked that to truly see a painting was as difficult as seeing God.  Fifty years later, Susan Sontag advised in Against Interpretation, that to reduce a work of art to a single feeling or idea was a form of violation.  So how do we look at art?  What do we bring to the conversation? 

In Art as Experience, John Dewey tried to level the playing field, describing a space where the artist and the observer both engage in a creative process. He also believed that art belongs to all, not just to those with the skill to make it.

“Art is not the possession of the few who are recognized writers, painters, musicians; it is the authentic expression of any and all individuality. Those who have the gift of creative expression in unusually large measure disclose the meaning of the individuality of others to those others. In participating in the work of art, they become artists in their activity. They learn to know and honor individuality in whatever form it appears. The fountains of creative activity are discovered and released. The free individuality which is the source of art is also the final source of creative development in time.”

Time and Individuality (1940)

John Galsworthy put in a word for the ineffable — comparing art to a moment of enlightenment. A kind of “know it when you see it” approach.

“Art is the great and universal refreshment. For Art is never dogmatic; holds no brief for itself; you may take it, or you may leave it. It does not force itself rudely where it is not wanted. It is reverent to all tempers, to all points of view. But it is wilful — the very wind in the comings and goings of its influence, an uncapturable fugitive, visiting our hearts at vagrant, sweet moments; since we often stand even before the greatest works of Art without being able quite to lose ourselves! That restful oblivion comes, we never quite know when — and it is gone! But when it comes, it is a spirit hovering with cool wings, blessing us from least to greatest, according to our powers; a spirit deathless and varied as human life itself.”

Vague Thoughts On Art (1911)
Forty years later, the French New Wave filmmaker Jean Luc Goddard insisted that the viewer be open and vulnerable:

“Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self.”

What Is Cinema? Les Amis du Cinéma (Paris, October 1, 1952)
About the same time, the critic Russell Lynes described the Art Snob as a person unwilling to risk even a portion of himself:

“The Art Snob will stand back from a picture at some distance, his head cocked slightly to one side. … After a long period of gazing (during which he may occasionally squint his eyes), he will approach to within a few inches of the picture and examine the brushwork; he will then return to his former distant position, give the picture another glance and walk away.”

Snobs (1950)
The novelist William Saroyan provides a useful concept of art as a form of cultural therapy, one that makes it easier for us to bear the burdens of ordinary life.

“The role of art is to make a world which can be inhabited.”

The New York Times (October 31, 1983)
Yet art can also force us to confront issues of social justice, in a way that’s completely different from moral outrage that’s stoked by watching the evening news. David Mamet observed over twenty years ago:

The job of mass entertainment is to cajole, seduce and flatter consumers to let them know that what they thought was right is right, and that their tastes and their immediate gratification are of the utmost concern of the purveyor. The job of the artist, on the other hand, is to say, wait a second, to the contrary, everything that we have thought is wrong. Let’s reexamine it.

Salon (1997)
While making art is a form of activism, so is the process of looking. The chief benefit of engaging with a painting or a poem, as Mary Oliver writes. is opening to a new perspective. There’s both a cultural shift, and a moment of grace that comes when we have the courage to stand outside ourselves.

I believe art is utterly important. It is one of the things that could save us. We don’t have to rely totally on experience if we can do things in our imagination…. It’s the only way in which you can live more lives than your own. You can escape your own time, your own sensibility, your own narrowness of vision.

The Christian Science Monitor (December 9, 1992)

—The Editors

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