That Pinot Clashes With The Drapes: On Art And Wine

November 30, 2011

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Art and wine have a lot in common. And not just because the art scene is notoriously wine-soaked. As someone who has worked at a lot of museums and more than one wine shop, I can attest to the fact that, although most art and wine lovers are fantastic people, there is a small but vocal subsection of patrons that, when they begin to espouse their opinion (and they will), make you want to smash a bottle of whatever is at hand and go at them Patrick-Swayze-in-Roadhouse style. These are the people who make you feel like a fool for confusing the air conditioning vent for a piece of Minimalist sculpture or not being able to list the number of grapes legally allowed in Chateauneuf-du-Pape (thirteen, for those keeping score at home). These people are what I like to call ruiners. It’s not enough to loudly proclaim their knowledge (such as it is) for all to hear – they have to make you feel bad for your lack of expertise or question what information you thought you had on a topic. When I rule the world, ruiners will be dealt with severely.

Art and wine are very similar, and not just because of their attraction to ruiners. Both are, in my opinion, largely subjective subjects. While I was a wine shop girl, I developed three categories for the wine in the store: wine that you love and tell people that you love, wine you love that you’re ashamed of, and wine that you “should” love that you hate. Art can be divided into these same basic categories.

I absolutely adore the works of Marc Chagall, Johannes Vermeer, and Rembrandt van Rijn. If it was financially feasible, I would cover the walls of my studio apartment in their art (of course, since it’s my fantasy I could probably have a larger apartment). I am slavishly impressed by their masterful technical abilities while simultaneously committing the ultimate art historical sin of referring to their works as “gorgeous.” Art historians are supposed to have better words to describe paintings. But to me, these works are gorgeous. I appreciate them for the technical prowess, for the accumulated weight of art history that lead the artist to this exact point, and because they are damned pretty. Works like these constitute the first category – no ruiner would dispute that all of these artists are masters of their craft. It is completely acceptable to vocally enjoy all of these artists.

I confess, people who work in wine stores totally talk about your purchases after you leave. If you come to the register with a cart full of White Zinfandel and sweet Riesling you are a) probably a white woman and b) judged behind your back. These wines are uncomplicated, easy to drink, and generally fairly sweet. They find their artistic equivalents in the work of Currier & Ives, Thomas Kincaid, Bob Ross, and many of the Impressionists. These works are generally aesthetically pleasing; using complementary, bright colors, balanced compositions, and either obvious narratives or no discernable narrative at all – only a beautiful contemplative scene. They are widely reproduced (how many Monets have you seen in dentist office waiting rooms?) and don’t require any artistic knowledge to appreciate. And, like sweet Riesling, if you list any of the aforementioned as your favorite artist in the presence of an “art expert” (self-appointed or otherwise), you will be judged.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of their art. Although the first two examples given employed large workshops to produce their works, there is still technical virtuosity present. Their work is pretty and popular. These artists, like the alcoholic parallels, have mass appeal and are harshly judged because of it.

The only thing to do with art or wine in this second category is to own your taste. If you love Sutter Home White Zin and Monet’s Haystacks, then shout it from the rooftops. Your tastes may change as you learn more about wine and art, but maybe they won’t. And when you proudly state that you love such “embarrassing” things, you generally find a lot of people sheepishly agreeing with you. I have a MA in art history and there were several Monet prints strewn about my apartment because his work matched my couch and throw pillows. It looked pretty, dammit.

The final category is often the most guilt-inducing. You may impress your friends by serving an Italian Barbera d’Alba that was cellared for ten years with your Thanksgiving dinner, but it probably won’t complement the food as well as an easy-drinking Zinfandel and crisp Sauvignon Blanc. I absolutely understand that Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, and Francis Bacon are modern masters whose work is essential to the understanding of modern art history, but I still hate them. Hate them. I have been forced to spend large amounts of time on all three of them at different times, and it has only enforced my negative opinion of them. I know dozens of people whose opinion I highly respect that not only enjoy but adore those artists. And that’s okay. Because art, like wine, is incredibly subjective.

And this is the main point I’m trying to make. Whatever your tastes in art and wine, own them. There’s no right or wrong, only what speaks to you (and pairs well with chocolate).




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