The Right Coast

June 18, 2005
Ars Gratia Artis
By Gail Heriot

My friend John Fund and I went to the Getty Museum up in L.A. on Thursday. It was my first pilgrimage to that great shrine of high culture.

There’s no denying that the setting is spectacular. The buildings and plaza are so brilliantly white they are almost blinding. And the view from the Getty’s mountaintop perch seems to take in all of Southern California.

But there's something unnerving about a shrine on that scale dedicated to art for art's sake. It's too spectacular. Instead of making the art collections seem important, it makes them seem unimportant. They can't compete with the view. Lest we forget, they are just a bunch of paintings.

It's easy to understand how religious faith inspires human beings to build grand cathedrals and temples. A shrine to the Creator of the Universe ought to be magnificent. It is also easy to understand why Americans, who do not always share the same faith, might long for a few monuments that we can all share in. But builders of monuments must be mindful of scale, and when God is taken out of the picture and replaced with man's handiwork as the object of attention, a grand scale may no longer be appropriate. Rather than feeling uplifted, the viewer may end up feeling a little foolish for climbing a mountain to see a few paintings, photographs and sticks of eighteenth century French furniture.

Among other things, we saw the Rembrandt show. It’s entitled "Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits" and will be on display until August 28th. It consists of seventeen portraits painted in the last decade or so of the artist’s life, portraying Christ, the Virgin, Matthew, Paul, Bartholomew and a number of other significant figures of the Christian faith. Among the paintings is the well-known "Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul."

I liked the show. A lot. And I was even willing to put up with annoying crowds and commentary from tour guides talking about the importance of brush stroke to see it. But I couldn't help wondering whether I would have liked it even better in a more intimate setting or a setting that emphasized its importance as an expression of faith rather than as a set of paintings.

By the way, if you find pompous art criticism either annoying or amusing, one of the funniest books ever written is Why Cats Paint: A Theory of Feline Aesthetics by Burton Silver and Heather Busch.