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Adventures On Interrogating the World

For me, when considering a work of art, I want urgency, romance with hard edges. <exempli gratia,
specifi>. I want something *modern* or at least so timeless as to be modern <exempli gratia, spp>.
Perhaps I am too provincial to be touched by anything outside the radius of my own experience.
In my life, I suppose I prefer strong flavors in art as I prefer strong flavors in food {salt, lemon,
olive oil}; things which are *distinctive*, which stick in your mind and once you've seen them start to
bleed over into your life, and begin to color your own perspective.
One or two examples stand out in my mind.

Picasso's sculpture of a
cattle skull framed
sparely in a bicycle seat
and handlebars,
somehow more lonely
(and conveying more of
a sense of mortality)
than the organic
original.

Lavinia van Vechten,


ominously framed
red and black,
looking as if she'd
been painted in
Sleepy Hollow itself.

In art I suppose I look for *life* and *vitality* -- the mannerist portrait of some English noble
arrayed for fox hunting is...stale. Lifeless. What am I seeing and why is it important? What is it about
this man which is rewarding to inspect, to look through as a prism to life? What is it about this painting
that's unique, which presents an experience that is irreproducible, which is superior to (and stranger
than) the experience one would have on seeing the same image in a book, or online?
This raises important questions of experience and authenticity (what *are* experience and
authenticity exactly, and why are they such writerly touchstones?) but I view my personal encounters
with difficult art as going down one of two paths (in the end probably both).
One, my tastes are too pedestrian and I am too much of a philistine to understand and fall in
love with (or at least appreciate how others can understand and fall in love with) the art on display; I
bring too little to the table in education and experience; I lack sufficient taste and understanding. (But
at the same time I refuse to do myself [or the paintings] the disservice of loving them without
understanding why, of adoring a great work simply because "it is a great work." To me, that's false and
hollow and artificial. The mind recoils -- but at the same time, I feel that this is not an uncommon
experience for most of the public on viewing a painting.1)
The second possibility is that perhaps, peut-etre, and as far as my understanding goes, there is in
fact nothing to be seen; perhaps the man is just a man and the painting is just a painting, and all there is
to be seen really *is* there on the surface.
My personal view is that any encounter with any cultural artifact is going to be a struggle, *has*
to be a struggle. I don't think I've been steeped in the history and context of Titian or Bronzino to make
their paintings meaningful to me (does one need history and context to make a painting meaningful? An
open question.) I've never painted, I've never studied painting, so I don't know how difficult it was for
them to render a certain golden shade of light, a certain subtle expression of pleasure on a man's face.
--------------------I think the struggle (and I think every true artist must make this struggle) is to, as Ezra Pound
said, Make Things New again, for ourselves and for others. We must take the artifacts of the past and
excavate them as an archaeologist would; clear away the accumulated detritus of Wonder and
Reverence, discard their empty status as Works of Great Masters, and discover what really made/makes
them great. What do they tell us that nothing else tells us? What did they tell the viewers of the past
that nothing else told them? I think only then can a work of art be true for ourselves, authentically true.
I speak of excavation and struggle and the groping towards authenticity in the context of Old Masters
and Renaissance painters -- however I think this also extends (and here I think this is even more
interesting) to things/people/institutions/facts about present everyday life. How do we excavate what it
means to be a citizen today? How does that compare with notions of citizenship in, say, 18th century
America, 17th century France, ancient Rome and ancient Greece? What does education mean to us in
2016 and how is that different from that of the past? What are the implied values, and how do they
differ comparing then and now?
What, after all, is the good life, and how have notions of the good life changed over time?
I think these are all rich ideas worthy of extended study. They represent notions which are not
commonly asked in today's discourse (at least outright); but are they not the questions we are all
secretly asking?
1) Here an extended quote from the ever-quotable Walker Percy on the topic:

"A young Falkland Islander walking along a beach and spying a dead dogfish and going to work on it
with his jackknife
has, in a fashion wholly unprovided in modern educational theory, a great advantage over the Scarsdale
high-school
pupil who finds the dogfish on his laboratory desk. Similarly the citizen of Huxley's Brave New World
who stumbles across a volume of Shakespeare in some vine-grown ruins and squats on a potsherd to
read it is in a fairer way of getting at a sonnet than the Harvard sophomore taking English Poetry II.
The educator whose business it is to teach students biology or poetry is unaware of a whole ensemble
of relations which exist between the student and the dogfish and between the student and the
Shakespeare sonnet. To put it bluntly: A student who has the desire to get at a dogfish or a Shakespeare
sonnet may have the greatest difficulty in salvaging the creature itself from the educational pack- age in
which it is presented. The great difficulty is that he is not aware that there is a difficulty; surely, he
thinks, in such a fine classroom, with such a fine textbook, the sonnet must come across! What's wrong
with me?
The sonnet and the dogfish are obscured by two different processes. The sonnet is obscured by
the symbolic package which is formulated not by the sonnet itself but by the media through which the
sonnet is transmitted, the media which the educators believe for some reason to be transparent. The
new textbook, the type, the smell of the page, the classroom, the aluminum windows and the winter
sky, the personality of Miss Hawkins-these media which are supposed to transmit the sonnet may only
succeed in transmitting themselves. It is only the hardiest and cleverest of students who can salvage the
sonnet from this many-tissued package. It is only the rarest student who knows that the sonnet must be
salvaged from the package."