Happy new year, my friends, and whichever two of you bumped my "follower" number from 99 to 101, thank you very much! For my part, the reisling and prosecco snuck up on me, and my head is not so happy as I would prefer it to be. Reisling! Prosecco! Who knew?
Anyways, here's a comparatively minor thought I've been pondering during happier times for my head. When I'm in an art museum, I encounter a particular phenomenon. I checked with Charlotte, who reports, "Nope, never experienced that one." So this might be more about my idiosyncrasies than a real thing. If so, take this post as the testimony of a bigot who is trying to reform himself - and nothing more. Even so.
The phenomenon is this. Let's say I spend a while looking at some Velazquez:
Then I go in the room where they keep the Giovanni Battista Tiepolos:
Well, those distinctively blue skies, so shimmering and dazzling, seem trivial to me - insipid, irrelevant. "Where is the substance of the Velazquez outlook?" I think to myself. And I cannot bear to look at the Tiepolos.
But if I go look at Tiepolo first, then I am enchanted by his serene women, his gusting clouds, his weightless, billowing world, crossed as it is by cool, fresh breezes:
Then if I go to look at the Velazquez paintings, they seem insupportably turgid to me, dark, heavy, without joy and airless:
The effect is even more pronounced if I jump from the baroque to the 19th century - I cannot easily go from looking at Rubens:
to looking at Cezanne:
And yet, if I should happen to look at, say, Monet:
Then I simply cannot force myself to look right afterward at that same Rubens:
And most pronounced of all is any jump between western art and eastern art:
I cannot make them sit beside one another.
So I got to wondering why this problem occurs; and I think it is not just a problem for me - I'll give you evidence in a little bit.
But first, here are my tentative conclusions on this idiom-switching difficulty. I think the problem is this: compelling artwork makes you see the world through the filter of that artwork. It colors the world outside the work, so that while things remain themselves, they also enter into the idiom of the work. Try studying Rembrandt for any length of time, and then looking at the people around you. They will look like Rembrandts - so tragically majestic in their worn faces, their decency, the accidental profundity of their everyday preoccupations. You will be sensitized both to the structures that define aging in their faces, and to their unshakable humanity. Your morality and your eyesight alike will be distorted to see the world as Rembrandt saw it.
To take another example which I think applies to art-lovers and casual art-viewers alike, try looking at Van Gogh and then go walking on the street outside the museum. The sky will seem a-swirl, every spot of color heightened and stylized. You will experience traces of the paranoia and the religious ecstasy which characterize Van Gogh's universe. You cannot help it - Van Gogh has remade you to see as Van Gogh sees.
The post-viewing effects of these extremely distinctive artists are noticeable for the casual art-viewer; but for the art-lover, even the less-extreme artists can induce the effect. Van Dyck can force you to see the world all elegant and Van Dyckish, even Boucher can induce a kind of mildly floral state of erotic distraction.
I am describing here not only a stylization of the visual sensibility, but of the spectrum of ethics and emotions. It should come as no surprise that these changes go together. If you are the sort of person who needs glasses, you have certainly undergone the fallout of getting a new prescription - not only does everything look funny as your eyes adjust, but you feel high. The distortion of the visual field induces changes in overall cognition.
Eyesight is so deeply linked to personality that by changing your eyesight, you change yourself.
I think this is the source of the friction, often violent, involved in trying to look at art in radically different styles in quick succession. Each artwork you study remakes you. It makes you unfit to look at art in a different style. You experience a kind of spiritual breakage when you try to look at the other kind of art - up until your eye and mind adjust, and you become the creature the second kind of art desires you to be.
The evidence I want to cite for how widespread this phenomenon is, is often cited as having a socio-political basis. And that is the uniquely vicious ire and contumely that result from forcing a devotee of abstract art to look at figurative painting, or a devotee of figurative painting to look at abstract art.
The socio-political justification for the sheer rage this procedure can induce, is that abstraction really wants to kill the figurative, and the figurative reciprocally heaps scorn on the abstract as false art, fraudulent art. Partisans of each cause recognize a mortal threat in the opposite cause, and lash out sharp-clawed at their enemy.
But why should they be enemies? Why should the one preclude the other? How did this war begin?
There are lots of explanations, and there has been vicious behavior, foul behavior, particularly by those partisans of the abstract who have systematically denied the legitimacy of academic painting contemporaneous with the impressionists. But, frankly, it would be hard to explain the Apple-vs.-PC-like fury of today's partisans in terms of the injustices of art criticism in 1950; and we aren't all actually active figurative painters who can't make a buck because Jasper Johns and Leo Castelli screwed up the art scene.
So my contention is this: we are angry because the art we like defines who we are. And not in the sense that who we are determines the art we like; but rather, in the sense that the art we have grown accustomed to looking at has remade us in its image, has given us sight in its direction and blinded us in all other directions. To say to an art-viewer, "You must look at this art as well," is tantamount to saying, "You must become somebody else." And if you say that to somebody, what they will tend to hear is, "Who you are now is bad." This is not a recipe for openness - it is much simpler to shoot back, "I know I am good, and your opinion is not only wrong, but illegitimate. Wrong - I might have to argue. But illegitimate? I can dismiss you as beneath contempt."
Why must we be right about the art we like? Because to be wrong about the art is to be wrong about ourselves - to be worthless people, futile people, maybe evil people. In art, to be forced to like that is to be forced, in a deep way, to repudiate this - even if it is only temporary. In art, there is no "this, and that"; without tremendous discipline, the only options are "this and not that," or "that and not this."
We must be right because generally speaking, there is not room enough in us for two things. And we must wage a pathetic little war about the difference because we are stupid enough to think that, if there is not room enough in us for two things, there is not room enough in the whole world for them either. We have once again confused ourselves with the world.
I am tempted to call my high horse over, heave myself onto him, and say, "Let us admit both the Master of Frankfurt, and Richard Diebenkorn. Let us admit both Leonardo da Vinci, and Cy Twombly. Let us admit both Holbein, and Courbet. Let us admit both Rogier van der Wyden, and Willem de Kooning. Let us admit them all, and have peace. Only not all at one time, because it is a little much."
Well, it's a theory. I wish you a year, if it is possible and reasonable, of peace.