Merton’s art appreciation

In the preface to his early secular journals, Thomas Merton warns that much of his youthful arrogance has survived in the following pages. This is apparent in his account of a visit to the World Fair Art Exhibit in 1939. Nonetheless, is observations while people-watching near one his favorite paintings (Fra Angelico’s “Temptation of St. Anthony” and something by else by Breughel) is intriguing:

There were a lot of people who just read off the name, “Broo-gul,” and walked on unabashed. But at least they must have thought it important. They came across with the usual reaction of people who don’t know pictures are there to be enjoyed, but think they are things that have to be learned by heart to impress the bourgeoisie: so they tried to remember the name.

I propose that much of the appreciation of Jazz in some circles doesn’t go much deeper than this.

I heard an old lady with a fairly harsh voice saying behind me, “Look, nobody laughs in these pictures. They must have been mighty unhappy people in those days.”

In the El Greco room, people were shocked beyond measure, violent and bitter, especially women. Their voices got shrill with fear and indignation, and one old woman cried out: “They’re all dying of the TB.”

Of course there were plenty of comments on the misery and unhappiness of the ago the painter lived in. What would be the good of turning around and asking the old lady: “If the world was dying then, what do you supposed it is doing now, in this age of hypochondriacs and murderers and sterilizers? How about OUR pictures, are they dying of anything? Or can they be said to die, when they can’t even come to life in order to do so?

It seemed that the religious pictures sometimes shocked people into talking not like people, but like the possessed.