Everyday beauty

08Jim Mott sent these further thoughts, after our conversation about his last itinerant art project:

The 2015 tour was my longest IAP road trip since 2000, when I launched the project with a 2 1/2 month coast to coast journey. Shorter regional and local tours have proven more sustainable, and I figured 2015 would probably be my last cross-country tour. This inspired considerable reflection and prompted me to revisit some of the key hosts from the first tour. Dave Chappell, the Civil Rights historian, was one.

I’d met Dave back in the 1980s, when he was a grad student at the University of Rochester under Christopher Lasch.

I should mention that my exposure to Lasch’s thought and personal example (I knew him as a family friend and worked for him as a research assistant for a semester) had a strong influence on my thinking and, ultimately, on my formulation of the Itinerant Artist Project – providing some of the intellectual underpinnings as well as the desire to become more than a Minimal Self (the title of one of his follow-ups to The Culture of Narcissism).

Dave influenced my project in more specific ways: he got me to read “Blue Highways,” which must have helped me to imagine, 15 years later, using a road trip as a vehicle for creative engagement. And, when I needed a nudge to get on the road for my 1st cross-country tour, I decided to think of it as a good pretext for visiting Dave in Arkansas, where he’d ended up.

This time, in October 2015, the visit was short and sweet, and when dusk fell the first evening there was about half an hour when a seemingly very ordinary neighborhood in Norman OK became so wonderful to look at that I almost couldn’t bear it. I’m afraid this painting of my car in Dave’s driveway serves more as a shorthand reminder for me than as an evocative transcription of the enchantment that twilight delivered.

I suspect that, along with the enchantment of twilight, something else was at work. I call it the Oklahoma Effect, and it has happened to me whenever I’ve driven across the state. A few hours on the Oklahoma highway induces such a sense of endless, rootless desolation that whatever particular things I see when I stop – weeds, fence posts, someone pumping gas at a service station, birds on a wire, chunks of gravel on the side of the road – feel wonderfully and miraculously actual and present. Dusk maybe just reactivated the effect.

The phenomenon of seeing unexpected depth of beauty in everyday things reminds me of something Joan Acocella recently wrote in the New York Review of Books:

“When critics speak of a writer’s ear, this often carries a political implication, of the democratic sort. They are talking about writers (Mark Twain, Willa Cather) whose world, by virtue of being humble, would seem to exclude beauty and music, so that when the writer manages to find in it those riches, the world in question – and, by extension, the whole world – comes to seem blessed.”

When that thought is enlarged to include the visual arts – landscape painting, for example – it articulates as well as anything my primary motivation for pursuing art: to attempt to cultivate and to share that kind of insight, that kind of discovery.

The underlying principle expressed by Acocella might be called “the gospel of beauty” – a term coined by the early 20th century poet Vachel Lindsay, who didn’t mean quite what I mean by the term. Lindsay did, however, wander the United States for a few years trading poems for food and lodging. I learned of him after I started my own project of aesthetic itinerancy.

Once upon a time there was an American type called “the gentleman vagabond” – presumably a person who was not forced by circumstances to be a tramp but who wanted to see the world in an unencumbered way. Some individuals of this type were motivated by ideals that conventional life didn’t leave enough room for. Or they were intent on sharing life with other people in ways that maybe required the context of the road, or of the journey, to make sense.

Lindsay wrote a book about his vagabonding called “Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty.” For years I took encouragement from the very fact of the book’s existence, its great title. I expected to like the story as well, when I finally tracked it down, but the personality that comes through is insufferable. I’ll just say that Lindsay’s ideals were linked to a level of self-righteousness and delusion I hope I’m able to avoid in the pursuit of my ideals.

Maybe we can all be forgiven for preaching now and then, but not to the point of eclipsing dialogue, which is the essential thing. Especially if one is on a journey.

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