10/18/2010 04:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Relish the Art That Surrounds You

We are surrounded by art and beauty -- all of us, wherever we live, whatever we do. Our challenge is to recognize and relish it. Let me explain.

First, I have had a lifelong love affair with art and have been fortunate to have studied in, learned from, guided and been guided by the great museums that enrich us all, and the schools and colleges that have been unique to my own education. My life has been much influenced and enhanced by the work of fine artists, and by the study of art history, by my involvement with art museums and their exhibitions. Art and artists are so much a part of me.

And I find myself thinking about the incredible surround or envelope that wraps all of these influences together for me -- my experience, day in and day out, in every circumstance, of the breathtaking beauty of the world. I'm sure this sounds romantic and far from everyday reality -- a kind of poetic vision of the world. But that is not at all what I have in mind. I don't mean something remote or rare or abstract or hard to reach or recognize. Rather, what I see, what I know, what I experience as beauty is a common, usual, daily occurrence.

I'm talking about the leap of recognition and reward I feel when I go by a garden or a body of water, or catch the glint of a skyscraper in the sun, or see a sculpture in the park as though for the very first time, or pass by a store window with an irresistible theme or collection of colors, or get brushed by the sweep of a yellow dog's tail.

I'm talking about the ubiquitous examples of the lift, the alert, the surprise and small thrills that come from acknowledging the loveliness that is both momentary and constant in the every day, ordinary encounters of our lives.

Walking down a street, seeing and visually absorbing the buildings, the signage, the storefronts and street lights, the hanging flower pots and street-level plantings, the strollers and delivery trucks and tricycles, the iciness of winter or the colors of fall. The visual revelation that a city -- big though it may be -- is simultaneously a village, a "neighborhood," just as Jane Jacobs always told us.

The humanizing of our spaces reveals itself in today's cities in a variety of ways -- in the bike trails along parks and rivers, the transformation of decayed buildings into usable places, the public art along avenues and squares and plazas, the pocket gardens and playgrounds, fresh paint and plants. We should be open-eyed, I think, at the many ways in which we are invited to enjoy our places. Glinting, darkening, clouding, shining, beeping and yelping, running or skipping, our cities' sights vividly catch the moments and define our days right before our eyes. Take my own beloved city of New York and how its latest evolution adds to its beauty. Recent local improvements derive directly from this attention to the visual:

  • There is more attention to design in our stores and on our streets.
  • Governors' Island is beautifully being restored.
  • A park has been built in the sky (The High Line).
  • Flowers and art installations and farmers' markets rise in Rockefeller Center.
  • There are fewer car lanes and more pedestrian pathways on Broadway; even the edges of FDR Drive, which pushes traffic in and out of the city, are newly softened with benches and lights and places for play.

New York City seems to be providing its citizens and its visitors with so many new things to look at, so many opportunities to see. And similar initiatives are sprouting up in cities throughout the nation.

It is not an exaggeration to say that when I observe these phenomena around our neighborhoods, I feel the same visual happiness I do when I look at a Rauschenberg composition, an Eliasson iceberg, a Wegman dog, a Warhol film still or any of the other wonders that visual artists put before me.

Artists like these have given me an instinct to see the world around me in the intense and loving and inspiring way that they do. In terms of discovering beauty in daily life, it is almost as though I have learned to be an artist myself.

Indeed, works of art are significant precisely because we learn so much about seeing the world from seeing them. If we want our children to love what is beautiful and meaningful--not only in the works of art they see hanging in museums but also in the parks and store windows and buildings they pass on the street--then we should encourage them to experience art and see as artists do: with intensity and clarity and eyes wide open.