First Words — 11 December 2011
Why We Fall Silent Before Art

By Mark Gauert

City & Shore Magazine

In the room with ceramics by Picasso, a man and woman lean close to whisper the question everyone has been wondering.

“How much do you think these pots are worth?” the man says, nodding to a vase Picasso turned in 1952.

“I’m sure that each piece,” the woman breathes, “has its value.”

Other whispers follow down the hallway, where a young girl and her grandmother sit cross-legged on the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale floor in front of a display of masks from Papua, New Guinea. The young artist looks up into the rattan-and-tied-fiber eyes of a mask, then down on the little pad she’s been drawing on.

“You’re going to need some more browns,” her grandmother whispers, helpfully picking through the box of colored pencils between them. “This one’s really hard to draw.”

“Yes,” the girl whispers, glancing back up at the mask. “It’s like he’s looking at me.”

A few more rooms away, I stop and look longer than my lunch hour should allow at Cape Cod Pier, an oil on canvas William Glackens painted in 1908. I am in no hurry to get back to work now. I want to catch up with his two women on the violet boardwalk here, and walk with them into that lovely, sunset-orange shore.

I turn to the guard and whisper, “Can I take a photo?”

“No,” she whispers back.

Even the enforcement is quiet here.

I turn back and try to burn the orange and violet image into my memory. And I wonder, Why are we all whispering?

We talk and text and tweet endlessly at movies and concerts and plays. We do it almost without thinking these days – almost certainly, actually, without thinking.

So why do we still fall silent at art museums? Why do we whisper in the presence of great art?
There is something ancestral at work here, I think, something deep that sharpens our sense of appreciation. We marvel in silence at pigments dabbed into animal shapes on cave walls, clay turned into ceramic pots, palm stems tied into masks that, eventually, seem to look back at us.

The woman in the room with ceramics by Picasso was right. Each piece has its value.

We have much to value, and to appreciate, in the arts here. Reading Contributing Editor Elizabeth Rahe’s story about Miami Beach photographer Brian Smith’s coffee-table book project, Art & Soul: Stars Unite to Celebrate and Support the Arts,we see there are as many expressions of art appreciation as there are artists. It’s not easy to put into words, but many of Smith’s celebrity subjects – Anne Hathaway, Kelsey Grammer, Tony Bennett and others – deliver eloquence.

I have no trouble expressing how I feel about the upcoming season of the arts, as Ben Crandell parses in his annual season preview and online at Our theaters, museums, arenas, galleries, concert halls are bustling.

We may whisper in the presence of great art. But a season full of so much art makes me want to shout.


William Glackens

Cape Cod Pier, 1908

Oil on canvas, 26 x 32 in.

Ira Glackens bequest

Courtesy Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale

One East Las Olas Blvd. Fort Lauderdale




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