12 January 2012

On Art, Light Bulbs, and Orgasm

Susanne Mentzer

The mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer has been writing essays lately for The Huffington Post. It’s not enough that she’s a dazzling artist in her own field (the first singer I saw as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and as the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos), she’s also smart about other people’s art, and she expresses herself in lucid prose that is darned near impossible to argue with.

Her latest essay describes some “light-bulb” moments she had while visiting the Prado Museum in Madrid. The magnificent collection there inspired several realizations about the importance of art in general and the need to experience it, to share it, and to support it.

I agree wholeheartedly with what Susanne Mentzer wrote, including the praise for the Prado, which I revisited a few years ago (after touring it as a teenager) and found beautifully proportioned, thoughtfully curated, and thoroughly inspiring. Full of “light bulbs,” in other words.

One thing that struck me while reading is that her light bulbs went off while she was experiencing the art. Visiting a museum, attending a concert or play, these experiences are triggers that lead us to think more, beyond the present moment.

The Prado Museum, Madrid

If some people are dismissive of the importance of art, and hostile to it, it must be at least in part because they haven’t been exposed to art: they haven’t been allowed or haven’t allowed themselves the light-bulb experience. They don’t know what they’re missing. But in consequence, these same people are effectively working to deny the rest of us — anybody else, really — a light-bulb experience.

Those of us who believe in the importance of art are often frustrated by those who don’t. We keep looking for persuasive arguments, but we don’t find them, and they keep on, stubbornly cutting funding and lobbying against what is (if only they knew!) the essence of civilization.

When faced with someone like Sue Sylvester (in her anti-arts campaign for Congress, earlier this season on Glee), we tend to reasonable arguments: “Art is good for the economy! It enhances education! It’s even good for your health!”

These are not, of course, the reasons we like art, and very few of the anti-arts crusaders are reasonable people to begin with: our debates are doomed to failure. We can argue until we’re blue in the face. The trouble is, we’re basically recommending orgasms to people who never had sex.

Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, at the Prado.

“You’ll like it,” we say. “It will bring you closer to other people. It requires a little effort sometimes, and you may feel a little self-conscious, but it’s totally worth it. Once you’ve had the experience, you’ll just want to keep doing it. Really, you’ll want it as often as you can get it.” And so on.

Our opponents need light-bulb moments (or orgasms) of their own, but they’re unlikely to get any so long as they never set foot in a museum, a concert hall, or a theater. And meanwhile, they’re making it more difficult for anyone else to have a light-bulb moment.

The first time I heard an opera, I was on a school field trip. This required extra funding for elementary education, as well as funding and donations for the opera company itself. Take a look around and see how well those issues are faring in today’s political and economic climate.

That doesn’t mean that we should stop advocating, and so I’m taking the opportunity today to say, “Brava,” to Susanne Mentzer, essayist.

In her essay, she says she’s not an art-museum person, and yet (for my money) her reactions to the art she saw were exactly right, original to her and yet in keeping with what the artists wanted. Her experience brought her into a community of men and women alive today, and long since passed away. (She was also able to express those reactions beautifully, and to share them with more people still.)

What happened to Susanne Mentzer in the Prado and afterward pretty much sums up why we need to support the arts. I’m grateful to her for sharing her feelings and ideas, and for making me think about my own.

The San Ildefonso Group, sometimes referred to as Orestes and Pylades, a gem of the Prado collections. Seeing it a few years ago, I was overwhelmed. But try explaining that to anybody else.

1 comment:

Elaine Fine said...

Thanks for this, Bill! I knew Suzanne when she was at Juilliard, and was as impressed with her mind as I was with her voice. I had no idea that she was writing for the Huffington Post (Michael and I have been avoiding that "publication" because of our mutual dislike of their methods). I'll have to make a period exception now.