Magritte was here, over two years ago now, and I visited him at The Museum on a cloudy, drizzly, seasonably chilly Chicago day in an early Chicago October. Time wrinkles like that and here I am on a not-hot-enough early July Chicago Sunday thinking how last week’s heat is right around the corner ahead but we’re not there yet, a few more days, they say, and thinking also how a little madness is actually what makes us sane, how only the truly crazy ones don’t seem to understand that and I remember sitting in a Chicago lecture hall some years prior to Magritte, enduring a sermon on the Weberian “perspective” delivered by a prof with a verified fetish for Asian girls and more than a few students laughed when, without a hint of jocularity, he mentioned Weber’s emotional breakdown and sanatorium stint. They laughed. Graduate students at one of the most prestigious universities in the world and they laughed because someone fell apart.
The act of visiting The Museum, of indirectly, distractedly mingling with and navigating through other goers, of drifting from creaky-floored room to creaky-floored room, from wing to wing, exhibit to exhibit is as much a part of the whole junket as observing the magnificent stuff on the walls and otherwise curatorially strewn about. It’s anthropological and literary, artistic in its own right, participatory and distantiated and at times completely fucking disheartening in spite of itself, in spite of us, and it sometimes makes me fall apart a little inside.
The crowd was thick that drizzly grey October day, thick and dense, and I don’t mean that merely substantively. Couples, students, seniors, children, roamers, loners, mobs, hordes, cliques, flocks, and congragations. An elderly husband and wife, a pack of young travelers with backpacks and phones and travel zeal, a family with same-colored t-shirts for chromoatic identification like a sports team, a mother with her young son—let’s say he was six, maybe seven, maybe eight, and she was an imbecile, maybe more, maybe less, depending on how you arrange and plot your scatters and intuit your identifications. Moving through the maze of dark-walled and dim-lit halls hung with Magritte’s work, the mother could be overheard chirping about the remarkable strangeness of the images before her, before them, before all of us. “Pretty crazy,” she said, turning away from one, eyes lolling, “creepy” (several times), agape-gazing at others, and also my personal favorite, “nutso, definitely nutso.”
But perhaps best of all was her final verdict, uttered upon completion of the labyrinthine gamut: “there were”—not that he used, but that there were, suggesting a superficiality and distance of perception supported in due course by her remarks—“lots of pipes, skies, and keys.” Why yes, yes there were.
* * *
When she was still current, I told a now-former girlfriend this little story of the Mother and Magritte and her response was probably the second most disappointing thing she could utter, second only to “so what, art is dumb.” She didn’t say “so what” or “art is dumb” she said “well, at least she was trying” and I thought “so what, that’s dumb.” That’s what I thought. What I said was a question-statement expressing my wonderment over how “nutso, definitely nutso” qualifies as trying. I think it’s distinctly not trying, I said, and taking a certain level of audacious pride in that, like when my dumbfuck classmates chuckled at Weber’s mental illness. She didn’t know about my dumbfuck classmates or Weber or his troubles so, a short story shorter, we didn’t talk about that anymore, the former and I, we just went to dinner or had sex or watched tv or I listened to her talk about the gym or some combination of those activities instead.
Former girlfriends and classmates aside, all I could do that day with Magritte was wonder—still do—what chance that little six-seven-eight-however year old boy has in life if that’s the kind of blatherous expatiation he hears every day. Maybe she was just off her game or out of her element. Or maybe she was on point, lucid as ever. Whatever it was, I wondered why she bothered to come in the first place and I know it’s reductive, and perhaps a bit unfair, but I can’t help thinking that in twenty, thirty years that boy will visit some wonderful exhibit in some world-renowned institution with his young son or daughter and fill that child’s ears and mind with the same useless drivel, the same proclamations of a surface-abiding species of thought and being for which depth, dimension, and even discernment are but unseen components of a freaky cloud, pipe, and sky-strewn sideshow to which some small amount of cursory attention is paid from time to time, more out of a crowd-driven obligation to seize days or moments or opportunities like they’re sale items at Christmastime than any moved interest or thoughtful desire to expand and explore, and then some obnoxiously intolerant misanthrope like me will overhear it and be just as offended, embarrassed, and perturbed, and go write an(other) essay about it.
It’s not the first time, in other words, and it sure as shit won’t be the last, which makes me wish there was a process or protocol or procedure by which museum security would place dunce caps on anyone who said anything beyond a certain stupidness threshold and direct them to a holding pen that could serve as the final exhibit to pass on the way out, one last look at ourselves.
Ooohh, look at the convenient stereotypes there, that one, yeah, that older lady, the one behind the husband she dragged here so she could have an audience to whom to pontificate regarding the time she saw Degas in the Louvre and how it was different a.k.a. better. She probably goes to her favorite restaurant once a month and complains every time that it’s not what it used to be, or isn’t like it was that one time in Paris. Or those students, milling around looking lost and resigned, remember how they were talking about that Cartier-Bresson photo in that crowded room and saying the people in it must be German “because look at their clothes”? I hope their parents appreciate the fact that the alleviation of puerility is not necessarily covered by the price of tuition. Or those two men, yeah, the ones trying to talk their way out of the holding pen, yeah, funny, the guard is having none of it, I know, aren’t they the ones we saw gushing over the portrait prints with such presumptuous familiarity that it seemed as if they fully believed they were looking at the work of colleagues or even friends, their too-practiced knowing tones of that boastingly complimentary sort having more to do with self-congratulation than appreciation of anything beyond themselves: “what moves me is they’re just so… beautiful… so… human… not just… You know, my real nature is to do this kind of work….”
Are we getting worse or has it always been this way? My hunch has always been always been, with the relative now-difference being one of tolerance and a growing inclination to hunker down behind minding our own business and blanket statements of an inexclusive quasi-egalitarian nature: they’re trying, who are we to judge, they don’t know any better, we all make mistakes, it is what it is, what can we do.
Well perhaps they might learn, and perhaps we should tell them when they’re so blissfully sloughing off life’s marvelous little fortuities, denying beautiful opportunities to be quiet and absorb some othercrazycreepiness, because I do believe someone told us, or showed us. Didn’t they? Perhaps we should pause like that prof did and shake our heads in discouraged but not entirely unsympathetic silence until our chuckling dumbfuck lifemates wipe those stupid grins from their faces and purge those feeble comments from their mouths and minds, pause astonished not so much by any apparent lack of knowledge as with a general paucity of appreciation and apprehension and self-awareness, whether in the presence of difference or madness or suffering or pipes and skies and keys, hoping with an unshakeable humanistic hope that they’ll come around and we’ll all be better for being better.
* * *
I’m still bothered when I think of that mother, clearly, bothered by what I think her oft-mouthed ignorance that day more broadly represented and continues to represent across time wrinkles like waves carrying the past up onto the shores of the present and depositing little bits of it for us to pick up and marvel at and examine or keep for later or toss arbitrarily back into the sea. I tried to toss the memory of her back into the sea but she keeps washing back up again and I realize I’m bothered because I keep looking and I keep looking because I’m bothered by the chance of which it seems her exemplary dimness is not so much systematically as habitually depriving our offspring, one little boy or girl at a time. I don’t even remember what she looked like but I see her clearly—if unfairly—as an embodiment of the more broadly social, the realm her child was just beginning to learn to experience, one of those sterling automatons designed to demonstrate the sad fact not of our decadence, I think, but of stupid in perpetuity. Lack of knowledge isn’t the issue, wasn’t—that’s not what I mean at all. She needn’t be an art historian or aficionado any more than the rest of us. She need only teach him silence, awe, focus, and curiosity, universal things, valuable things, progressive and developmental things which seem less and less to be necessary features of our cultural repertoire and sound, oddly, more and more themselves like kitsch the more they’re mentioned and the more their apparent scarcity is bemoaned. A trap, this, with double-edged swords in abundance.
Maybe we need a new language for grace and dignity, new ways to make the point that sometimes, maybe most times, it’s best to plainly, simply shut the fuck up and observe, to self-mute and let something outside speak its piece. Not a new language to shout-down the dumb-reflex but a new aesthetics of silence. With dunce pens for enforcement. Yes, a language of graceful, dignified, innocent, open observation, not more noise turned up louder by narcissism, expensive educations, and strong vocabularies. Because I can’t help thinking that even this, what I’m doing here, now, more or less innocuously rambling through an exposé of memories and fractured thinking is a little too much, even unbecoming, even if I do get a laugh or a knowing nod or two.
And speaking of time wrinkles and hypocrisy, as I write this I realize I’m sitting on the same veranda under the same trees outside the same café where I first met the now-former girlfriend for our first date and I wonder if she’s read Sontag. No, no I don’t. She hasn’t, and it doesn’t matter, neither have I, and I know I’m taking it out of context and meaning now because its title feels as appropriate here as another memorial association, appropriate here and back up there where I left it a paragraph ago, thinking some referentially sensical but near-arbitrary thought that fits but doesn’t matter. And yet I said it anyway, worth it or not.
What about art, though—does that matter? I think so, and I think it’s worth saying it matters insofar as what it makes us think and feel and what it teaches, its power to draw us into momentary relationships with sublimity and highlight any and all of the sketchy, imperfect-perfect aspects of our fundamental nature, good and bad and beautiful and nutso, not so much standing as an outward act of unification but preparing space for all this to take place, like storytelling, all tangled up in us.
This is not political or even ideological unification—it is beyond those and beyond ideology, and firmly settled in acts of looking again, under different and differentiated circumstances, non-circumstances, telling those tangled stories, whether in epic or flash-pan snippet form, stories that bring us into contact with shreds of ourselves, of each other, of time, of crazy and nutso by soothing, reminding, strengthening, challenging, and overturning received impressions, entreating us to step out of the great shabby buzz for a moment and be impressed upon by something else. That’s what matters. But it doesn’t matter if we know it. We just have to be ready to be moved, taken, touched.
Art need not be held up as some inaccessible Thing requiring special knowledge to appreciate or approach, white-gloved and monacle’d. It’s a chance for us to drop what we know and relate, intuitively, instinctually, and it makes me wonder if exclusivist, hyper-specialized attitudes toward it—all art, any art—and their attendant dialects and patterned turns of phrase haven’t contributed to, if not produced, a broader socio-linguistic instinct to “say something,” to make some pronouncement or present some opinion, either listlessly or with dexterity, in regards to whatever it is that’s being observed or experienced. It makes me wonder if that mother wasn’t just performing her version of the role of museum-goer/art critic, since we’re all fucking experts anyway, such is our age of constant commentary and unreserved judgment (I know).
Two children just scurried by on the sidewalk beside my table with their parents not far behind as I sat wondering what to say next, two children out front and the father carried a third and the third looked at me over her father’s shoulder as they passed and the sight made me think of Tarkovsky, perfect little person-reminder of something he said about children and art that I think ties all this together, so I went and found it and here it is:
My objective is to create my own world and these images which we create mean nothing more than the images which they are. We have forgotten how to relate emotionally to art: we treat it like editors, searching in it for that which the artist has supposedly hidden. It is actually much simpler than that, otherwise art would have no meaning. You have to be a child—incidentally children understand my pictures very well, and I haven’t met a serious critic who could stand knee-high to those children. We think that art demands special knowledge; we demand some higher meaning from an author, but the work must act directly on our hearts or it has no meaning at all.
Is the immediacy of emotional relation not destroyed by dull self-(dis)qualifiers like those uttered before Magritte, hung out to dry all by themselves as unthinkingly definitive pronouncements of value and normalcy? And wouldn’t it have been just as bad if that mother had recited critical expositions and biographical minutiae from rote memory as it was for her to have so triumphantly discovered all those pipes, skies, and keys? Emotional relation is lost either way, lost in derisive discomfort and knowing, and the greater discomfort of the fear of not.
* * *
I visited Margitte with my ex-wife—it was one of the first things we did together as exes, I think. We missed each other, simple as that, and we wanted to go somewhere beautiful and see something fascinating and have it mute us. So we did and it did, and we fell right into our familiar non-verbals, which is perhaps why I didn’t think to say then what I’ve recalled just now about that lecture hall offense. She’d been there too that day, the day of laughter and forgetting, and it had become something of a running joke when we were together that I’d somehow always find a way to bring Weber up, obsessed as I was by his thoughts on modern society, so I’m going to do it again because it fits, for old time’s sake present-wrinkled, and because I, too, sometimes don’t know when to shut the fuck up. It’s a little semi-famous something toward the end of The Protestant Ethic, where Weber, remarking on our socio-historical stage of “mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance,” grabs Goethe to finish the thought: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”
It really does, doesn’t it, and this is where I think Tarkovsky is spot on—the spirit and heart let us relate like children and be struck by meaning, our convulsive self-importance simultaneously struck down by emotional relation and all of the sudden the memory I see is of an overcast October sky blanketing the city’s contradictions as a solid gray whole, I remember how image and metaphor were slapped the face with literalism and flat language, how separation and love existed in a shared moment amidst throngs, how apparent madness stood as sanity out beyond the bounds of this vast nullity, and how personhood and being were all but silenced, turned way down to an even hum by irenic contemplation of the work of a long-dead Belgian acting directly on the heart and spirit, so low that history’s bulk could be heard playing itself out in the banal form of the Mother and Magritte and I think yes it takes all kinds, it truly does and always has, takes all kinds to imagine we’re somehow now smarter, more developed, all kinds to demonstrate and argue that we’re not, we’re all just as crazy as ever.
Ok, I’m going to be quiet now. I’ll be in the dunce pen if anyone needs me.