art and meaning

My friend Gabe recently asked me: “When did art become important to you?”

It’s a question I’ve never been asked — it made me pause and consider something that I haven’t ever really given my specific attention to before.  It’s clear that art is important to me, as one can tell from the alleged thematic devotion of this blog and, if you know me, the concerns about my future as “an artist” (whatever that is…) that keep me awake late at night and drive me to wander the streets in a sort of divine despair.  But I guess I’ve tended to treat the importance of ‘art’ as sort of a posteriori knowable, when in fact it is, from most perspectives, a construction of vast cultural construction.  This is not to say that what we call art is itself culturally constructed — there are works that are intrinsically whatever they happen to be, perhaps even pre-culturally, so the application of the label, ‘art’, is independent of the thing in itself.  But does it change the thing, in itself?  It changes, at least, our perception of it, since culture is fairly inescapable, and depending on whether you believe in phenomenology, maybe this changes the thing itself simply by changing how we create, psychologically, the thing itself.  Hmmm.

All that aside, my response in the moment was to tell a particular anecdote about a time that I had stood for nigh on an hour, transfixed, before a certain Mark Rothko painting that hangs in the MoMA.  I mythologize this moment for myself as some rite of passage, a recognition of my true Self and an utter giving up of that Self to a work of ‘art’, to the power of vision and the patience to be — the patience to be moved.  I find I tell this story often, actually, and now I question the sincerity of my intention in telling it.  Maybe, at age 15, I did stand there and know the importance of art, but now the more I tell it, the more it seems like a prop in my artistic, hipster-clad, surface-oriented, post-modern presentation of self, a tale of appropriate name-dropping and passion, rather full of sound and fury…but signifying something.

Photographs hardly do him justice.

Perhaps I was so moved because I had recently seen a documentary on Rothko, or because I was at the appropriately self-constructing and angsty age at which I happened to be, or because it was a very hot day and my subconscious mind knew that my body did not want to leave the air-conditioned space of the exhibition hall or even to move a few inches…who knows.  Context, and knowledge, and everything that is decidedly not pre-cultural, could very well have come to bear on this.

I can think of any number of other instances in which art has, I suppose, ‘moved’ me, and these all seem to rally as proof of its importance, if for no better reason than that I am selfish for emotional and sensual experience, that it is good to be moved.

But Gabe’s question: when?

Have I always valued art?  I know I haven’t always liked the same art throughout my lifetime, but what of my evaluation of art as whole, as a thing distinct from other things, as something that we seem to elevate as a culture?  I don’t remember suddenly beginning to find it important, some precise transition from a dis- to acknowledgement…such a transition would require a negative value judgment to begin with, an awareness that could be switched, like poles, into the positive.

But art is never not a part of life; I go back and forth about whether art is life and life is art.  So when did I know that life was important?  Perhaps in my first brushes with death.  Perhaps, too, such brushes with the potential for eternity and for nothingness are what awaken me to the power of art.  Perhaps this is why, in spite of my misgivings about my most hispterish intentions in its telling, I keep coming back to the story of the art of Mark Rothko, who himself made the decision to plunge into eternity.

Now, to answer Gabe’s question: if only to remember the moment I knew that I would not live forever.

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