The Artsy Lover

book rackMy guess is hardly anyone reading this has read The Art Lover by Carole Maso (New Directions, 1990).

In the 1950s travelers could arrive at Scottsbluff, Nebraska , by railroad or Trailways Bus. I think the Trailways depot was at the lower end of Broadway, across the street from the Lincoln Hotel (I’m sure my siblings will correct me if I’m wrong).

The depot was a dingy one-story brick building with a covered driveway where passengers could board buses sheltered from the weather. The waiting room comprised the rest of the building. I may, of course, be confusing this memory with one from—from God-knows-where.

The waiting room had a revolving wire book rack with books for sale. I clearly remember being with my father fetching someone from a bus. One of the books on the rack caught my attention, and I asked my father to buy it for me. His answer was, in essence, that any book one could buy in a bus station one ought not to read.

And so continued my education as a snob. One would hope merely an intellectual snob, but more likely simply “snob.”

That would not be a matter of concern if I possessed any quality, physical, mental, spiritual, or social, worthy of snobbery. But I don’t. And not buying books in bus stations (these days in airports) has deprived me of a great deal of pleasure without accomplishing much to improve my mind or my social standing.

Maintaining this questionable snobbery I’ve deprived myself of Mickey Spillane. Dashiell Hammett. Jonathan Latimer. Erle Stanley Gardner. Ross MacDonald. Michael Collins. Stephen King, Agatha Christie, and Danielle Steele. Hundreds of Westerns. Spy novels, detective novels, steamy sex novels, science fiction novels. J.K. Rowling. Much of what I have avoided is probably worthy of avoidance. But I have deprived myself of entertainment, of perfectly harmless but enjoyable means of passing the time. I have avoided “hidden pleasures” (or overt prurience).

As I reported here a couple of weeks ago, this spring I was introduced to Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander novels (thank you, Jerome Sims). I am now 200 pages from the end of the last of the three. I have read them with pleasure, interest, and suspense—which is exactly their purpose. When I first began reading, I snobbishly thought Larsson did not have the artistic skills to write the number one best-selling work world-wide. And then I gave up my “attitude.”

I hadn’t read for pleasure since the summer reading program at the Scottsbluff Public Library in about 1955. Kids were in groups named after Western explorers. When one of us finished a book, our explorer went another mile along the Oregon Trail. Mine was the Jim Bridger group. We did not win—because my brother’s friend Delmar Coe was in another group, and he read a book a day.
Save-Freedom-of-Worship
I love The Art Lover. It’s a novel about art, and it morphs into an autobiographical narrative about a friend of Carole Maso’s who died of AIDS, a novelistic tour de force. I love the Wagner Ring operas. I love the El Greco St. Francis in Prayer I first saw at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha when I was in high school. I had no idea what made it great art or why it affected me so deeply.

We are all snobs in our own way. Some wouldn’t see a rock musical for anything. Some wouldn’t attend a concert of music by Stockhausen if it was the last music on earth. Some wouldn’t drive two miles to see a Norman Rockwell painting. Some would drive two miles to avoid seeing a Picasso.

I used to own Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste : Aesthetics in Religious Life by Frank Burch Brown. It’s an interesting book, but on the surface the idea is preposterous. I don’t know where my father learned what “good music” is (surely not at Immanuel Baptist Church in Kansas City in the ‘20s). But I knew from childhood until I was 50 or so, I thought “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” wasn’t “good music.”

I also knew—because his work didn’t hang in the Joslyn—Norman Rockwell wasn’t a great artist. Then I fell in love with the great-grandson of the old lady in his painting Freedom of Worship. Honest. My late partner.

The French philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote (I can’t quote it exactly) that one should not try to make art “Christian,” that the quality of love is what makes a work art.

So I’m hoping to give up being a snob, reverse or otherwise, in my old age and begin to experience what people make and do for the quality of love they put into it—not for my opinion if it’s great, or, for that matter, whether or not I like it.

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