Never mention two words around me: Ken or Burns. If you do, I will launch into a diatribe about the failings of the American education system and cry out, "Why can't they just teach things in context!?! My god, give those kids some context - just like Ken Burns does!!!"
Literature without historical context? Nice stories. Art and music without history? Just pretty paintings and catchy tunes. Calculus without physics? Freakin' confusing and charty. Spanish without plans for an amazing trip to Buenos Aires or Barcelona at the end? Pointless.
In high school, you might be studying Chinese imperialism while reading Gatsby and listening to Mozart. It's all taught in silos. You eventually piece things together, but it could have just been taught the fun and interesting way the first time around. Kids would be running around, pumping their fists in the air, exalting, "My god, it all makes sense!" Yes, I'm sure they would.
This context is absolutely vital for understanding modern art. To understand the war years and the aftermath is to understand Picasso's cubism and Pollack's splatters. But even with context, I never got Cy Twombly. He scribbled and smeared and I just didn't like it. Adding "Zeus!" to what looked like a preschooler's tantrum on canvas? That's not art, I told myself (while frustrated with my aesthetic narrow-mindedness).
But then I got some very cool, seemingly local gossipy context in art history class at Washington & Lee University.
Cy grew up in Lexington, Virginia and his dad, also Cy (after Cy Young), was athletic director at the college. The professor explained that Cy, the artist, was never understood by Cy, the jock, and that their tensions haunted him for much of his life. As much as he reeled from the fratty, macho environment of W&L and his home life, he actually poured it into his art. His gray paintings aren't just gray canvases with scribbles, the professor explained, they're symbolic of his dad's work, figuring out plays for the football team on a chalkboard. "My god, it all makes sense!!!"
I'd like to think that all those chalkboard paintings are all meant to show us all that there is no real playbook for fathers and sons - that it's all just a mess and you have to play the game anyway.
None of the non-factual parts of that tale may even be remotely true, but it did provide the context (faux or not) I needed to appreciate his art. Cy died today in Rome - his other more artsy home - at 83.