Over the davenport in my grandmother’s front room, there used
to hang a picture. It was a realistic painting, in Rembrandty earth-tones,
showing a woman in a humble skirt and apron, standing in the door of
a farmhouse. Her face was turned away from us, and her alert, slightly
mournful stance let us know that she was focused on something far off—the
horizon perhaps, which snaked beyond acres of gently rolling farmlands.
Her arms hung at her sides, as if the day’s work had exhausted
her almost beyond standing. But still she stood in that door, gazing
off into the distance, her posture speaking volumes about a hardscrabble
life. I believe there was a small dog at her side.
I have no idea where this painting came from. My paternal grandparents
were farmers, their uninspiring eighty acres in southwestern Michigan
inherited—or rather, repossessed, in what became a family scandal—from
my great-grandparents during the Depression. I used to think of the
woman in the picture as my grandmother when she was young, standing
in the door of the very farmhouse where the painting hung, waiting for
my grandfather to come home from the fields, or for her brother to return
from the hobo life he ran off at sixteen to find. The painting might
have been a reproduction of some sort, sold at Woolworth’s, or
maybe it came from one of those “real oil painting!” sales
at the Ramada Inn in Kalamazoo, bought as a gift by one of their six
children who lived to adulthood. It may even have come from farther
away. As they aged, my grandparents collected objects from far-flung
places, not from their children, all but one of whom stayed in the same
quadrant of Michigan where my grandparents lived out their lives, but
from their grandchildren, who traveled farther afield. My cousin Mark,
for instance, joined the army and was posted to Korea in the 1970s.
From there he sent my grandmother a trio of ceramic vases, the kind
I see all the time on the streets of Chinatown, black, painted with
multicolored small flowers. They came wedged neatly into a Styrofoam
square. My grandmother loved the vases, and she perched the whole set,
still lodged in the Styrofoam, on top of the television set, where it
sat proudly for years. When I think of this now, I feel an odd ache
in my chest. My grandparents have both been dead for a decade.
I can see my grandparents’ painting today in my mind’s eye,
and yet in some sense I can’t see it at all. As a child, I thought
it was beautiful. I wanted to grow up and inherit that picture—truly
inherit it, of course, out of generosity, not as my grandparents “inherited”
their farm—and hang it on the wall of my own home.
As I write this, my living room is hung with the things I consider beautiful
today. Over the sofa (we don’t call it a davenport), I have a
white-on-white painting by the artist Nancy Drew, a reinterpretation
of Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning. On the same wall hangs a
monumental photograph of the Fresh Kills landfill by Susan Wides, and
two casts of bracket fungi by the sculptor Roxy Paine, whose stainless-steel
tree in Central Park was one of the treats of the 2002 Whitney Biennial.
On other walls I have photographs and works on paper, and an abstract
oil painting by Kurt Strahm that looks like the inside of a cave, or
the surface of the moon. There is also a diptych by Charles Spurrier
made of multicolored plastic shapes on one half and a jumble of Christmas
tree lights dangling before a mirror on the other.
I love the things hanging on my wall. There aren’t any recognizable
superstars there, no Jackson Pollocks or Damien Hirsts or well-known
vintage photographs. Bob, the man I live with, and I buy what we can
afford. Some of it may increase in value but we don’t care about
that—we chose each piece because we loved it. Other people might
feel differently; responses to art are very personal. I’m sure
our guests often wonder why we made one choice or another. They might
think the Spurrier light bulb piece is somewhat overpowering, for instance,
or they might feel—as does my mother—that Lisa Kereszi’s
photograph of a pastied showgirl is not ideal living-room fare. They
might dislike the slightly burgundy frame a framer convinced me to use
with a red photograph, or dislike how on one wall we have hung a greater
than usual number of pictures, opening ourselves to potential accusations
of gaucheness. What they are less likely to think, however, is what
I would think if I were to walk into someone’s home now and see
the picture of the farm wife that hung for so many years over my grandmother’s
couch. They might disagree with my taste, or even think I have bad taste.
But they probably won’t think I don’t even know what to
I am not talking about art. Let me tell another story. Recently Bob
and I drove to Ithaca, New York. The route up from New York City edges
the Catskills, and then, north of Binghamton, leaves the interstate
and travels an older, two-lane highway. On one stretch of road, it seemed
that each village or boro we sped through was more abjectly dilapidated
than the last. Crumbling frame houses were slowly being displaced by
mobile and modular homes of mind-boggling drabness. Vehicles in various
stages of disrepair clogged driveways and yards. Cars, trucks, snowmobiles,
houses: everything was up on blocks.
All of this produced in me a complicated upwelling of emotion. It reminded
me of Michigan, and specifically of the increasingly shabby rural landscape
in which I grew up. To my own surprise, I felt an odd surge of longing.
I knew from childhood the insides of those modular homes—the plastic
corner trim, the shallow-pile wall-to-wall carpet—and they seemed
incalculably inviting, more so even than the exposed brick and hardwood
floors of the nifty downtown apartment Bob and I were so excited to
get. For a moment, driving through a lifescape that gentleness would
label bleak, I missed Lays potato chips, from-concentrate orange juice,
Sears jeans, M*A*S*H, and the Reader’s Digest Condensed
Books that were stacked in my grandmother’s attic, and which
I would lie on the davenport reading. I missed the oily smell of the
furnace, the lumpy welcome of what I would later learn to call a sofa,
the polyester afghan, the uncomplicated pleasure to be gleaned from
zipping through a heavily abridged Michener novel and following it with
a “Real Life Drama.” I missed the delicious macaroni and
cheese casserole my grandmother used to make with Velveeta, and which
she would gently dust with a layer of crumbled cheese puffs. I missed
all of the things I used to enjoy, before I began to see enjoyment as
a marker of taste—and thus something I could get wrong.
Much is made of the acquisition of “taste”
in our culture. A common lament is that the American people en masse
want the wrong things. In a world full of choices, they stampede cluelessly
to the worst ones, choosing reality TV, Ore Ida Fries and Britney Spears
over indie film, Fingerlings and Bach. They hang tacky paintings over
their davenports and read Reader’s Digest Condensed Books
beneath them. The cognoscenti distinguish themselves from this tasteless
rabble through their ability to want the “right” things:
Edward Wormley sofas, Whitney Biennial–approved artists, literary
journals with ironic, adorable names.
Sometimes I think of my education as little more than an extended exercise
in upgrading my own desires. By the time I was in high school, I had
seen just enough of the world to long for worldliness, and to know that
my ill-funded public school in rural Michigan was not going to get me
there. I convinced my parents to send me to a girls’ boarding
school in England to finish high school. There, in my literature seminars,
I learned what books I ought to have read in order to be “in the
know.” I pored over the A-level reading list and committed new
names to memory: Auden, Eliot, Thomas. I stayed up late at the creaky
dark wood tables of the sixth-form library, reading Macbeth, Julius
Caesar, King Lear. I was mapping a territory in which I could confine
my sense of lack, before methodically hunting it down.
In college the process continued. I added films and artists to my list.
I remember few things with as much pleasure as sitting in the semidarkness
of my art history class two mornings a week, watching slides of cathedrals
or bronzes flicker by. There, I said to myself. Those are
the things I want to know. Abroad in my sophomore year, my boyfriend
and I rifled through Europe like jackals seizing upon a dead antelope.
He, like me, was a rural Michigander who somewhere along the road to
adulthood had conceived highbrow aspirations. Together, we wore out
our shoes trudging from basilica to palazzo to konzerthalle. We did
not join our classmates at pubs or biergartens; we did not look at parks,
Eiffel Towers or hot springs. We weren’t there to have fun. We
were there to gain sophistication, and since we didn’t have the
money to eat great food or drink great wine, we would focus on what
we could afford. And so we hoarded our money for inexpensive pensiones
and museum admissions, subsisting on stashes of baguette and cheap cheese.
To this day I can’t abide brie. But we were on a mission, determined
to use our time abroad single-mindedly in the acquisition of expertise
we knew we lacked. We were connoisseurs in training.
The art world defines “connoisseur” as something specific:
a person with an “eye,” whose talent for visual discrimination
and assessment helps to establish authenticity and fix values in a notoriously
unstable market. But I’m talking about the more general meaning.
The etymology is straightforward, deriving from Latin’s cognoscere,
to learn or to know. Most dictionaries give two definitions, the first
having to do with the presence of expertise or special training, the
second a broader sense denoting a person of taste. In popular parlance,
the two definitions have merged, and the word has come to mean someone
who becomes a person of taste through the acquisition of expertise.
A connoisseur knows from having learned. Thus we have connoisseurs not
only of art, architecture, music, fashion, design, but of wine, whiskey,
beer, cigars, chocolate, gems, coffee, even popular culture. If there
can be a right and a wrong to something, a good and a bad, it has connoisseurs
to declare which is which.
Let me not give the wrong impression. I do not hate luxury. I love wine;
I enjoy whiskeys that I can’t pronounce; I have even been known
to indulge in the occasional cigar. I am not uninterested in pleasure;
I am not even, in most cases, morally opposed to expense. What disturbs
me is the idea of “appreciating” good things—wine,
a chair, a painting—rather than enjoying them. I don’t deny
that understanding often enhances enjoyment. But the languid unfolding
of pleasure is too easily eclipsed by a headlong rush to analysis. Somewhere
along the way, fun is lost. Yoking enjoyment to evaluation confuses
a striptease with an anatomy lesson.
Distanced from his own experience, the connoisseur replaces appetite
with achievement. What he thinks becomes more important than what he
feels, because in the end, it’s not about liking something; it’s
about liking the right things. There’s more than a whiff of compulsion
here. Hedonists are not connoisseurs. They’ll take enjoyment from
any source: Bring it on! They are egalitarian where connoisseurs are
elitists. “To eat is a necessity,” according to La Rochefoucauld,
“but to eat intelligently is an art.” And if it’s
an art, it must be learned.
Education is always said to be an equalizer. But learning is also a
means of exclusion. As with any exclusive pleasure, the enjoyment to
be had in connoisseurship increases in inverse proportion to the popularity
of its object. The better something is, the fewer people know it’s
good. Appreciation thus signals distinction, which drains it of fun.
I’ve seen people ordering from menus with a commitment to choosing
the “right” things—the distinctive, the rare, the
odd parts of the creature Americans usually hate—that factored
out appetite entirely. I’ve watched friends who would be happier
drinking a beer gallantly attempting a whiskey they didn’t enjoy
in the least; but they felt they were drinking the right thing. Connoisseurship
imposes the requirement to enjoy where indulgence once beckoned.
The urge to replace appetite with analysis rears up highest where appetite
is most primal. Through connoisseurship our basest needs—food,
drink, covering, shelter—magically transmogrify into polite appreciation
of cuisine, wine, fashion, architecture. This is less about Puritanism
or fetishism, as some would argue, than it is about the good old-fashioned
fear of the physical. As La Rochefoucauld’s maxim declares, without
the interpolation of intellect, eating is simply necessity, a servicing
of the body. With intellect, it becomes an art—a human accomplishment,
and hence the accomplishment of humanity. Odysseus’s Cyclops,
remember, bolted his wine. A friend of mine, when he feeds his dog a
slice of sausage, holds on to the meat while she takes it, forcing the
dog to savor—that is, not to be a dog. The ability to subjugate
our bodily neediness to the higher notion of pleasure is what separates
us from animals and monsters.
This is simple mind-body stuff: eat to live or live to eat. It’s
the body that wants. The body hungers. It requires warmth, longs to
sleep, and lusts to procreate, all of it beyond our control. To usher
in the mind through the gateway of culture is to manufacture the illusion
of taking charge. We do not answer to the body. We dine, we dress, we
desire, we do not die.
Somewhere along my own path from naïf to sophisticate, the balance
between indulgence and instruction was lost. When I think back on my
college years, the scrim through which the whole era shimmers is that
feeling of repeated lack and fulfillment—an endless incomplete
sufficiency, like when you’re incredibly thirsty and begin drinking
water, each swallow simultaneously gratifying and not enough, so that
you gulp and need more, gulp and need more, gulp and need more, until
you remind yourself to breathe.
But this is precisely where the metaphor fails. In the end, one gets
enough water, at least for the moment. Eventually you stand up from
the spigot or set down your glass and release a sigh of satisfaction.
There is no equivalent moment for the intellect. As I move toward that
nebulous territory we have labeled “middle age,” I realize
that the body can rest content but the mind cannot. Perhaps this is
what I mean to say when I say I am against connoisseurship. I am against
it because it puts the cart before the horse. It subjugates the body’s
desire to the mind’s appreciation, when in fact it should be the
other way around. That’s not an attempt to advance some relativistic
notion of quality: I don’t know much about X, but I know what
I like. Instead, it’s a reminder that intellectual appreciation
should always proceed from pleasure. The mind’s panting restlessness
may be its hallmark, may in fact be the source of its beauty and—if
I dare use the word—its nobility. But the body is where it starts.
And ends. Although my own end is—I hope—some time to come,
the fact of it has begun to nudge its way into my thoughts, enough to
make me see that if I am ever to face death with equanimity, it will
be not as connoisseur, but as hedonist.
After my grandmother died, my grandfather, in one of those fits of resentful
fear that often beset the very old, began selling things to strangers
in order to prevent their falling into undeserving family hands. His
1927 Model T was advertised in The Allegan Flashes and promptly
sold to some lucky punter for a fraction of its book price. Other things
he simply destroyed. He made huge bonfires in the yard out back and
hauled truckloads of household articles to the dump. The family wrung
their hands, because among the cow creamers and the souvenir plates
and condensed books, there were bound to be some things worth having.
My grandparents were poor all their lives. From the dawn of the century
to its close, they lived the spare, unembellished life of Depression-era
farmers . They never acquired anything of value, except for things—like
the Model T—that accrued worth through the odd calculus of rarity,
longevity. and cultural relevance that turns mass- produced objects
into valuable antiques. A connoisseur picking through their home would
have made two piles: the things that had aged into desirability and
the things my grandfather was free to use as kindling. The painting,
I suspect, would have wound up on the latter heap.
But my grandfather was no connoisseur. For him an object had value if
it was useful, and after my grandmother’s death, he had little
use for anything. Although over the course of a seventy-year marriage
he had rarely spoken a complete sentence to her, although none of us
twenty-six grandchildren and thirty-five great-grandchildren had ever
seen him bestow a single drop of affection on her, my grandfather mourned
my grandmother to distraction and then to death. And so he destroyed
the detritus of their life together, quickly, indiscriminately, unrepentantly.
Perhaps he was right to do so. The contrived value the world might ascribe
to an old car, a wooden bowl, or a salt and pepper set given out at
gas stations in the twenties, was nothing to him. I picture him at the
pit out beyond the well where he burned the household trash, poking
a stick to hurry the fire along. He’d be wearing overalls—his
uniform—and the denim work coat that hung in the entryway, smelling
of hay and oil and cigars and Old Spice and the slightly metallic tinge
of Michigan winter. In front of him, the painting I once loved balances
atop of a pile of clothing, magazines, books. As the flames catch the
picture, a black emptiness opens in its center and flowers outward,
rippling quickly toward the wooden frame.
At the time, I was in grad school. As my grandfather turned his back
on the things of this world, I was reading French theory and watching
Antonioni at the Film Society. If I had been there to witness the conflagration,
would I have saved the picture? Even if I had, where would it fit in
my new home? Whether it was burned by my grandfather, driven to the
dump, or salvaged by a sentimental cousin—even if it sits behind
a box of my discarded dolls of many countries somewhere in my father’s
basement, the painting is lost to me.
When I visit Michigan now, I sometimes drive to the small cemetery where
my grandparents are buried. It’s a typical farmland graveyard.
You drive down a gravel road until you come to a low rise, dotted with
maybe forty graves and some scrubby trees, a U-shaped two-track winding
through. Carl and Mildred Strand. They each have a small marker, but
I never feel their presence there, not as much as I would by looking
at the picture of the farm wife, or by going to their farm, which is
less than a quarter mile away on the same road. Like the picture, the
farm is lost, subdivided into five-acre lots that now sprout boxy modular
homes. One of those five-acre lots was my inheritance, but I didn’t
know what to do with it, so my father sold it and gave me the money.
I used a good part of it to buy my first real piece of art, a black-and-white
photograph, by Bruce Cratsley, of a crumbling stone face in the antiquities
section at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“I see you’re collecting photography now,” a friend
said upon seeing the photo, newly framed, on my wall.
“No,” I said, and still say. “I just love the picture.”
Ginger Strand’s essays and stories
have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Believer, Raritan, and
The Carolina Quarterly. Her novel Flight
will be published in May 2005 by Simon & Schuster. Visit her Web
site at www.gingerstrand.com.