June 13, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“I don’t know art, but I know what I like.”

That’s an old maxim that originated with Monty Python, or Archie Bunker, or Will Rogers, or Mark Twain, or North Carolina Sen. Jesse “liberals are going to hell” Helms—or maybe Francis Bacon wrote it in the 16th century and forged William Shakespeare’s signature.

Whoever said it, we all believe it. Nobody is a better critic of art than we are. We walk up to a painting, or out of a concert hall—we put down a book or examine a statue—and we turn to whoever might hear us and say, “I don’t get it.” Judgement thus rendered, we start looking for a food truck.

Some folks like the masters of painting—Rembrandt, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Michelangelo. Some love the impressionists—Renoir, Monet, Paul Cezanne (although he is truly post impressionist). Many admire Salvador Dali’s moustache and melted clocks. Some love the happy little trees that Bob Ross taught us to paint on TV, or those big-eyed orphan/puppy/kitten paintings. And don’t get me started about the genius of Arthur Sarnoff’s masterpiece, “Dogs Playing Poker.” 

In music Beethoven was a grouch but we love his music. Mozart was a spoiled child star. Franz Liszt had groupies. Chopin was heroic. Gershwin made Fred and Ginger dance. Bernstein kidnapped Romeo and Juliet and schlepped them to the West Side. The Beatles turned rock into pop into art. And Keith Richards has become a monument just by surviving.

The great sculptor Auguste Rodin was a thinker—we have all imitated the pose. Degas and his ballerina…Michelangelo and his David…and his Pieta…Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi created our Statue of Liberty. And what the heck is that thing on the Council Bluffs overpass?

As for literature, did you actually read James Joyce’s Ulysses? No, you didn’t, but you have an opinion about it, don’t you? Did you listen to Cole Porter when he told you to Brush Up Your Shakespeare? “Just declaim a few lines from Othella, and they’ll think you’re a hell of a fella.” Do you read bestsellers? Did you love Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, or did you puzzle out The Da Vinci Code? Hint: she’s his great-great-great-great-etc.-granddaughter.

Do you ever read or listen to the art of poetry? They even have competitive poetry now. They call those events “slams,” although no actual physical contact occurs—that is, no one dives in to savagely block an attempted couplet. The slams are pretty exciting and it’s a way that more and more young people are introduced to the art form. As for me, I marvel at the fact that I actually know our state poet. I knew him back when he was just a county poet. It’s even more remarkable to me that one of our great poets actually wrote a poem that mentioned me—really, I keep a copy in my wallet.

What is art?

That question has caused a few thousand books to be published over the years, as philosophers from Aristotle to Snoop Dog have attempted to explain why this odd bipedal species we belong to makes music, recites rhymes, tells stories, and draws pictures on cave walls, canvas, and our own bodies. Tolstoy says that art “Is a means of union among men.” And Tolstoy had a beard, so he must be right.

Go out and find art. Go out and support art. When you find it, tell others what you found. If you know an artist, support them. Our lives are art when we open ourselves the uncommon wonder to be found in every common thing.

Art is all around us. You may not be able to define it, but you’ll know when you like it.


Otis Twelve hosts the radio program Early Morning Classics with Otis Twelve on 90.7 KVNO, weekday mornings from 5-9 a.m. Visit kvno.org for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.