I will confess here and now that I'm a bit of a jaded Artist. (Okay, I'm jaded about things in general, but still....). Call it the Curse of Grad School, but I have difficulty in finding warm affection for that thing called Art, even though I've been educated in it through and through and I'm attached to it as a livelihood. The 'Shock of the New' is no longer shocking nor that new, and the museums that house the Old Masters seem more like mausoleums than places of discovery.
So, I have to give credit to Simon Schama's Power of Art for at the very least forcing me to look again at the culture of Art, its history, and how it relates to me as a person in the 21st Century. I checked this out from the library with a bit of skepticism, but a couple episodes in and I was truly hooked, eating up all eight episodes in one weekend.
What was it that caught my eye? What made me a true believer? Was it the production, the artists, Schama's voice itself? That last part may not be far off, because I think what made each episode remarkable was the one thing that I always look for in a work of art: storytelling. Each episode opens and ends with a work of art by an artist, and then branches out to encompass their body of work and their personal history. In this, Schama is an impeccable guide, he knows how to spin a good yarn and to transform these artist biographies into a living, breathing narrative. And by doing this, Schama removes them from the pedestals of High Art and High Society, and shows just how connected they were to the politics, religion, commerce, and upheavals of their respective eras. None of these artists are saints, each of them is flawed, and all of them had to struggle to bring their visions to life.
Of the eight artists profiled, the one that effected me the most was Mark Rothko, surprisingly. Part of this was due to the fact that I didn't know much about Rothko to begin with, and I'm not immediately drawn to abstraction. But in the episode Schama confesses that he himself wasn't an immediate admirer of Rothko, that he too had doubts. This admission opened up the possibility for me that there might be something more with Rothko's work that I'm not seeing, that even doubters can become believers. And sure enough, I discovered that within Rothko's work there is a sense of contemplation, that Rothko is creating a place and space for the viewer to be silent in a world that no longer allows it. Schama states that Rothko treats every viewer as a 'human being, and what other higher compliment could there be than that.' One would hope that all Art would attempt the same.
There are other high points. Caravaggio's episode is excellent, and the Van Gogh episode digs deeper to understand the artist's psyche beyond just the 'tortured genius' argument. Though Schama uses 'genius' anyway, and actually throws it about just a little too much with all of the artists. But no matter, Schama is in love with his subject, and that devotion is clear through each episode. His goal isn't necessarily to educate, but to open your eyes to the possiblities that Art possesses, not only in the past, but one would hope in the future as well.