by George Ball
I saw a Wall Street Journal article a couple of weeks ago about surprising, nay stunning, modern and contemporary art auction results. Old records were smashed and new ones set. Many were paintings of majestic importance and quality, such as Jackson Pollock’s. Yet others were for art works as trivial as—of all things—metal tulips.
It’s just like “everything else” these days, pardon the cliché. I was discussing it with a friend recently with respect to music. Samuel Barber? Too pretty. Ralph Vaughan Williams? Way too pretty. But modernist and contemporary music? All the rage. Few, if any, musical directors include Barber or Vaughan Williams in symphony repertoires; they are exceptions to the rule. Today, much art lacks traditional craft. People tell me that’s the point, but I still don’t get it. For example, few people learn to sing well. I remember, as a child, we used to sing while walking to and from school. Formal music instruction was mandatory in grade school. Alas, the country was younger then.
Consider pop music: Beyonce, Justin Bieber and Jay Z? I, for one, cannot take them for more than a few seconds. Taylor Swift is often flat. I am half southern so I am sensitive to country music. Swift cannot sing well. But then Sheryl Crow deliberately goes too sharp or flat for effect. Yet it is unpleasant. It is “effect”. Not aptitude, and certainly not training. Music is one of the toughest things to study, particularly classical music. Harmony? Counterpoint? The teachers bang your head against the wall for months on end. This is why one can hear a symphony by Bartok played flawlessly, night after night. God bless orchestras.
It is well-known, but worth repeating, that all the great pop singers of the 50s and 60s were trained in church from early childhood on. You will never hear them go flat.
Vaughan Williams’ “In the Fen Country” is one of the most exquisite pieces of music ever written. Or his songs set to the poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, the Wanderer series I think it’s called, depicting in poignant melody the sad plight and struggle of Scottish people driven off their land. The same goes for most traditional Scottish folk songs. Or consider poetry. Many of the passages in the Bible were developed, crafted and smoothed by translations into some of the most beautiful words in any language. Or Shakespeare. So few of these passages are familiar to most people any longer.
Yet “drip” paintings, as the Wall Street Journal dismissively called them (bit of a put-down of such a giant as Pollock) and the stack of garish metal tulips each go for many millions of dollars. Amazing, literally.
Here is another example of the subjectivity of beauty.
In the late 80s, after my colleagues and I had finally broken ‘Mona Lisa’ anemone, the first anemone identified on the Aalsmeer auction ticker by name, into Holland—the world’s largest and most competitive flower market (a reverse auction: dropping from high to low)—I flew back to Chicago from Amsterdam thoroughly exhausted after celebrating, including a couple of consecutive nights of drinking, which the Dutch did voluminously in those days. (Not so fashionable now.) Through the wine haze, one of the salty dogs of the Dutch flower industry told me, “You think we party? You should go drinking with the fish guys!”
The ‘Mona Lisa’ breakthrough in Holland was a big achievement. No company had done it before, much less an American one. As anyone who knows it will tell you, ‘Mona Lisa’ and its imitators are perhaps the finest cut flowers in the world in terms of sheer all-around beauty: irresistible and impossible to have too many in the home. I have seen people instantly relax in their presence.
The pinnacle of my thanks from the Dutch auction industry was to be invited to the chairman’s elegant corner office in downtown Amsterdam for his personal congratulations over coffee. At that time there were 13 separate flower auctions, working ‘round the clock, every day. So he was an important and impressive fellow. He had a Renaissance bronze next to his picture window that opened onto the roofs of Amsterdam.
Back home at my former company, PanAmerican Seed, we spent the next couple of years reselecting over the winter and building up another stock of “corms”, or bulbs as they might be called, of a truly spectacular crop—fantastically clear colors, very large blooms, long strong stems, over 2 weeks vase life in clear water. The perfect cut flower! Everything was “go”. We went to Japan in 1989. One of the best executives I ever worked with, John Guenther, and I sat down with all the top flower growers and merchants in every major city. (Oddly enough, Japanese industry might be consolidated at the top, but it is highly fragmented on the ground, so to speak.) But each and every one of the flower buyers we met said the same thing: “Too beautiful”.
John and I didn’t understand what was going on at first. We didn’t have very many Japanese trips under our belt, we were in the youthful prime of our business lives, very excited, confident and certain of the value of our product. However, we were not sophisticated about the many ways the Japanese say “no”, without using or even suggesting the word. Besides, a “no” was unimaginable to us.
We were confused for a long time. We went from one city to the next in a nation of millions of enthusiastic flower lovers. The daily lunch or dinner photos of the trip show our smiles—bright at first—gradually falling over the two weeks until we appear as if we are simultaneously grimacing and smiling. In the last, we don’t even try to smile. Amusing set of photos, since there are so many because the Japanese take them all the time. Like a flip book movie of our collapsing smiles.
Toward the final days of the trip, I began to fantasize jumping over the airport fence, running across the tarmac, and flagging down a plane. I got home and was sick in bed for a week.
The Japanese do not like large flowers. We had no idea. When we figured it out on about the last day, we were astounded. They like vase flowers which have a width or diameter that is “just so”. Anything over that is absolutely unacceptable. A European simply—and happily—uses a larger vase. But the Japanese seem to have an almost totalitarian, “government issue” aesthetic, which includes vase and bloom sizes. I was told later that it has to do with Japanese traditions of living in small, compact homes. We missed by several centimeters. The buyers completely ignored everything else that was virtuous and beautiful. “Too beautiful”, they’d repeat over and over. It became an Alice In Wonderland nightmare.
Somehow I think this story is related to the phenomenon of a commercial artist of no particularly great talent—but extraordinarily transgressive and child-like—such as Warhol taking the art world by storm for a half century. Today’s art world is “Japan”. Anything that is “too beautiful” is unacceptable. “Vase sizes” are analogous to parlors and sitting rooms. Thus, 19th C. Beaux-Arts paintings are shunned, despite their breathtaking beauty, psychological depth, and historical importance. Thus, too, no one conducts the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams or Samuel Barber.
Warhol was famous for saying—among other things, such as the 15 minutes of fame—that art is something people do not have to buy. How vacant, to me; how cold and lonely. A pity that such vulgarities are popular, even coveted.
I shall never forget meeting the great—tremendous—painter, Nathan Oliveira at an art event in San Francisco. He said something like none of his paintings should be worth more than $10,000. I understand, somehow. No coincidence that he was a legendary teacher.
If one wishes to see some nice anemones, similar if not better than my (now) old ones, there is a grower named Battenfeld near Rhinebeck, NY. Others took over my operation and, well, the blooms are still great but not quite the same. It was my baby and Scott Trees’ and Simon Crawford’s and Sten Larsson’s as well. Understandable. Now at Burpee I focus on sunflowers, campanula and dahlia and, of course, marigolds and zinnias, which are almost as important to us as tomatoes and sweet corn.