Recalibrate Your Breathing: Three Excursions

Timothy Don writes in The Old Town Review:

Sometimes it is nice to go and look at a thing in the freedom of an afternoon. This is one of the supreme pleasures of being alive in New York City—wandering around on subways and in neighborhoods, rambling through parks, along beaches, sidewalks and so forth. This wandering has an inadvertent aim, inadvertent in that it always comes as a surprise, aimful in that one seeks that surprise. Sometimes, through a willful inattentiveness, we encounter art. This is what it means to be civilized. How remarkable to live in a time and in a city in which it is possible, if we so choose, to spend an afternoon contemplating a 12th Century etching (of an ascetic, a maiden and a goose), a color field painting by Mark Rothko, or a single page from one of da Vinci’s notebooks. We are the fortunate ones.

There are few activities in the engagement of which human beings appear so foolish and bloated as when they are looking at a piece of art. Taking it seriously. Encountering it. It’s even worse when they open their mouths and begin to remark on it. There is a lot of bad breath in museums, galleries and at happenings. But the reason for this halitosis swirling around art is that the appreciation of it occurs in public. Aesthetic experiences, as Peter de Bolla has noted, operate at a low frequency. They are private; each one wants to produce a sacred solitude in its attendant, and the objects that provoke them would like nothing so much as to be looked at, closely, for up to an hour, through each eye.

Needless to say, it is difficult to look at objects suchwise in public, but even an oblique consideration of a sublime work on a crowded Sunday in the stuffiest of museums can, like Sylvia Plath’s black rook in rainy weather, still “seize my senses, haul my eyelids up, and grant a brief respite from fear of total neutrality.” Whatever it is in an art object that has this effect, we find it valuable because it makes us deliberately alive, and since we have to be alive anyway (being alive one condition of being human), we might as well enjoy it.

Art is selfish, it is not kind, it puts on airs. It is proud. Art hogs up space, demands attention and oozes self-importance. It needs to be displayed. There is indeed something very silly in art, and worse. As I write this there are corpses drying in the desert, families extinguished with the flick of a finger. A major power is at war; the geopolitical sphere shudders; the smallness of the globe and the pettiness of our desires are revealed. History is a bloody thing and time is traversed with gory feet. This time at least, we are dragging the rag of democracy along behind us—but in the face of our current situation art seems not much more than an indulgent and irrelevant luxury.

Read more here.