Michael Kimmelman, The Accidental Masterpiece; On the Art of Life and Vice Versa (New York: Penguin Press, 2005), 245pp.
When I lived in Moscow and would visit St. Petersburg, a visit to the Hermitage Art Museum was always an obligatory pleasure. Ditto for New York; the last time my wife and I traveled there we visited the Metropolitan Museum. But at both museums I felt a pronounced sense of dislocation, like I somehow lacked the knowledge, the experience, or the aesthetic sensibility to appreciate fully the exhibits we saw. We enjoyed much of what we saw, but we still saw a lot of "art" that caused me to resonate with Harry Truman's judgment that Churchill's works were "damn good" because "at least you can tell what they are and that is more than you can say for a lot of these modern painters." Were the artists and their work pretentious, or was I just ignorant?
Kimmelman, chief art critic of the New York Times, has written an unpretentious book that genuinely appreciates that common dilemma for both artist and amateur. He moves the reader beyond Truman's humorous but ill-informed notion, and does so in a manner that does not condescend toward the reader or dumb down his subject. His book is eminently accessible and written with a deft touch, itself a textual work of art that is a pleasure to read. Yes, he takes you through the world of professional artists like Matisse and Michelangelo, the brilliant and the bizarre, but he also gives equally serious attention to the artistic impulse in the likes of dentist Hugh Hicks who had a collection of 75,000 light bulbs, a prisoner named Ray Materson who learned how to do exquisite embroideries of his beloved New York Yankees, painting by numbers that I tried as a child, and the homemade quilts made by poor black women in remote Gee's Bend, Alabama ("...some of the most miraculous works of modern art that America has ever produced."). Although a professional critic, Kimmelman imparts an infectious sense of wonderment and enthusiasm that democratizes art in the best sense of that term.
Art can transform our lives by helping us to live more fully and attentively, and not only by engaging the sublime but by appreciating the mundane and the utterly ordinary. Humanity's creative impulse hints at something beyond and greater than ourselves that emerges not despite but even because of restraints, conflicts, and confinement. Beauty, in Kimmelman's view, clearly has a spiritual element that helps us to "slow our systems" so that we can live as we ought. Through appreciating art, "we may learn something about how to conceive of our own ordinary existence—about how to live and die, more constructively or at least more alertly." Which is to say that even, or especially, one's life can be a creative act of art and beauty.