Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Seurat and Steve McQueen

Recently, while giving a talk about a Seurat painting I was confronted with an interesting problem: how does one make people fully appreciate that an artwork from the somewhat distant past is ground breaking? One can tell them, or make them memorize it in art history class, but it’s hard to feel the drama of revolution when something has become a trope or so well known that it’s become part of everyday life. It’s difficult to recognize the avant-garde when it’s seen reproduced on cubicle walls in offices everywhere.
Paysannes au Travail, Georges Seurat (1882-83)
Photo: www.guggenheim.org

The best answer to this question is to put the work into context. This is easy when speaking with people who have a familiarity with the subject matter. It’s a lengthy proposition when speaking with people who are unfamiliar with the various movements or art history. Because of this, I’ve come up with an analogy I like: the car chase from Bullitt.

Bullitt (1968)
Photo: www.telegraph.co.uk
When I was a teenager, my father told me about the legendary car chase from the movie “Bullitt” (1968) starring Steve McQueen. I was prepared to have my mind blown. And, it is a great scene; cool car, Steve McQueen performing amazing stunts on the hills of San Francisco. It is absolutely iconic. But, I felt that I’d seen it all before. And I had. Ever since Bullitt, the elements of that movie have become conventions used by dozens (at least) of movies and television shows. But the people who saw that movie in 1968 must have been blown away.

In the same way, it’s difficult to convince people that an impressionist or post-impressionist painting was considered radical because most people have grown up seeing these paintings as posters on dorm room wall, as gift shop calendars or refrigerator magnet souvenirs from a favorite museum. So, I’ll keep trying to find the best way to solve this problem. In the meantime, I’ll continue giving the nod to that classic cop movie and maybe make people appreciate it more as well.

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