Unexpected Encounters with Art

Have you ever had a totally unexpected encounter with great art? You know, you’re walking down the street and then boom! There it is. A work you didn’t know was there. And it just knocks you out. And your experience is far more visceral and I think it even goes in a different part of the brain because – you’re not prepared for it. You’re not thinking about what you’re supposed to be thinking about this work of art. You’re not thinking about what you’ve read about it. (If it has plot you haven’t heard the end- so much of so-called criticism these days is little more than just telling you the entire story in advance, including the denouement! Thanks, critics. How self-indulgent of you. A self-indulgent art critic? ‘ nevah met one!) And when you run into great art unexpectedly, you’re happy, because you think you’re smart because you put yourself in the right place at the right time.

So when has this happened to you? Could be a movie you heard nothing about, went, and couldn’t even blink for fear of missing a frame. When I was a kid, “Walkabout” did that to me.

Or I remember, in sixth grade, AV wheeled a big old metal TV on a rolling stand into our math class so we could watch the World Series. Flipping through the five channels that existed, looking for the game, the AV kid happened for just a moment
on Miriam Makeba singing “the Click song.” He knew that wasn’t what he wanted but he paused ever so lightly, because I think he was touched by it. But then, he turned the channel and found the ball game and we listened to that. For hours. I don’t remember a single sound from it. But the unexpected single moment of Makeba changed my life forever. I had never heard a sound so beautiful. I had never heard language used so sensually, so gorgeously. I had never heard English spoken with such soft rolling letters, like rolling hills. The warmth in her tone melted something in me, took me back to when all was soft. Maybe it was more powerful for having been a snippet, just an elusive * moment, and then it was gone. I had to hang on to it if I wanted it to last.

Once in Berlin, I was riding my bicycle, I had no idea which part of town I was in, and I turned a corner, and then BOOM! It knocked off my bike. I had to throw my foot out to the side and stop cold to keep from falling over. Right there, right in front of me, was Peter Behrens’ AEG Turbine Factory. It’s a monolith, it’s a monster, it’s a heavyweight fighter. ‘Nuff said.

I guess often a pretty moon or snow in the park, or icicles make me stop and take notice, and nature is supreme, I agree, but the effect unexpected art has on one is what we’re talking here.

It happens often to me at the Old Town School of Folk Music when I go to see one band, and the warm-up band, previously unknown, are as terrific. (Most recently with Old School Freight Train. They warmed up for bluegrass maestro David Grisman; Grisman’s great, but you know what you get. He’s been doing it for years. This other group came from out of nowhere – at least for me – with a talent and freshness that just hushed the crowd until it was over. More on them soon, they’re coming back to Chicago fairly soon. I’ll let you know.)

The other day I was rushing down State Street to buy some flowers and I looked up as I always do and BOOM! The new cornice going up on Carson’s took my breath away and made my heart beat fast at the same time! You see, because no one had told me -“go see Carson’s new facade,” you experience miraculous moments of creation, in which the brain is trying to process what it sees, and it creates an original response to a powerful stimulus. What fun! The brain are the body and the soul create an original, purely you, unmitigated response. You put the new experience where your previous experiences tell you to put it. That is exhilarating. Because you add to your own self.

So why did I tell you to go see Carson’s cornice and lessen what could have been a potentially powerful experience for you? “Oops!”


1. Isn’t this why we don’t like people to tell us the end of movies before we’ve seen them?

2. Walking down the street in Chicago is the best movie of all.

3. Times Have Changed: The Surrealists had these fleeting experiences on the street
with beautiful women. I had mine in a suburban classroom with a woman on TV!

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