bad art from people we like

What do you do when people you like create something that you think is terrible? Starting from one presumption that there are people that like me, I’m sure some of those folks think my art (or some of it) is terrible. So I’m aware enough to consider that I create this uncomfortable situation for others.

But what do you do? What, when your voice seems conspicuously absent from a chorus of complimentary responses? The old aphorism about not saying anything at all (lacking something nice to say) is fine and dandy until the artist in question asks for your opinion.

Maybe I’m just too much of a people pleaser.

Dinner at Alinea

valerie, chef achatz, and me in the kitchen at Alinea
(blurry photo by the kind hostess)

Yeah, that’s right. I also included this post in my “Arts” category. Because the meal Valerie and I consumed over a perfectly-paced three hours was a masterpiece.

I made reservations over a month ago for dinner at Alinea in Chicago and was immediately giddy at the prospect of eating my first haute-cuisine meal. Each passing week brought the realization that I was ever-so-much closer to tonight, and as I sat down in the upstairs dining room of the stylish and contemporary restaurant (perfectly befitting the Great White City) I had the nervous excitement of a child on Christmas morning who has woken just a little too early for his parents to let him tear away the wrapping paper. I know that sounds a bit cheesy and overwrought, but I’m serious. I felt like kid. Before every course. And the excitement built before each of the THIRTEEN courses.

Valerie and I each had the smaller – yes, there’s one bigger – of the two menus, but we didn’t leave hungry at all. We knew there would be around thirteen items, but with a frequently changing menu we had no idea what would arrive at our table next. One set of flavors transitioned to another with varying intensity of flavor. Amuse-bouches built up to incredible major courses before winding down with three dramatically different yet perfectly complimentary desserts.

I’ll not list the entire menu here – perhaps I’ll update the post with a scanned image of tonight’s menu when I get home – but I’ll share a few highlight items. I can’t begin to describe some of the preparations, though they did include gels, foams, clever service, and liquid nitrogen. Sure, call it “molecular gastronomy” – a cliché at best – but it would also miss the point. The presentation served to delight more than simply the palate. The aromas, textures, and even how we were to eat certain courses made spectacular entertainment out of what was ostensibly dinner. The food wasn’t merely delicious, but it was fun to eat. It was, therefore, easy for me to dive right in to some ingredients that I had until then avoided. Shad roe? Sure! Morel mushrooms? Delicious. Leeks? Absolutely. But there was also sturgeon, confit of pork belly, Wagyū beef, fois gras, and black truffle. It was a culinary tour de force.

It wasn’t cheep, and I’m sure you guessed that. And I’m sure a meal like this isn’t for everyone. I have no problem with somebody wanting to eat what they grew up with, or comfort food, or keeping it simple. But if you’re willing to step outside your gustatory comfort zone, save your dollars and make it happen. It’s worth every penny. Is it wasteful? I’d argue it’s not. There is craft, there is skill. There is visual beauty. Expert execution coupled with extraordinary creative talent. To eat at Alinea is to be a patron of the arts.

great DOF and tones!

It’s probably pretty clear that I never went to art school.

I’ve explained before how, in my formative years, I was on the fence deciding between my creative and analytical sides. Having chosen the analytical school and (so far) job path there’s one are of my artistic life that seems to be missing – criticism. I’ve not, that is, participated in, dealt, received, nor studied formal art criticism (okay, so a really easy voice jury when I took singing lessons as a non-major…I don’t think that counts). My photography class in the summer of 2008 was supposed to include two critiques but did not.

The thing is, I believe there’s at least some value to deeper investigation of creative output. I just don’t really know where to start and how far to go. On the one hand there’s the high-minded bloviating found, tragically, all-too-often in the mainstream art world. On the other, there are comments like this post’s title and scads like it that I see on Flickr every day that say little more than the obvious.


I’m not suggesting that all verbose criticism is overwrought nonsense. Certainly complex and personal reactions to great art can elicit complex responses. I do not, additionally, dismiss all simple gut-reactions as empty commentary. It’s still complimentary for somebody to suggest that your photo’s composition is nice, or that the architecture of a concert hall has pretty windows. I guess I just want a middle ground.

I’ve been trying, as much as possible, to really slow down and examine photographs I see on Flickr before (if at all) commenting. On such occasion that I post something, I’ve tried to add something of value – some detail about how I react to the picture. There are plenty of “Wow, sweet” comments left in my wake, but when I feel like a picture is worth prolonged staring, I like to say why in a bit more detail than “Great angle and colors.”

I’m not terribly worried about the grad-school-style diatribes because, frankly, I don’t think I’m that intricate a writer.

two coca cola bottles

To have, to realize that two Coca Cola bottles are not identical and what makes them not identical is that they’re not at the same point. They can’t be at the same point in space. Since they’re not at the same point in space they automatically receive – each one receives light differently than the other, so that it can be as fascinating as going to a museum to look carefully, attentively at two Coca Cola bottles, hmm? And something of that is implicit in a great deal of 20th century art.

John Cage in an interview with Terry Gross on WHYY’s Fresh Air.