“The specialness of even the most ordinary things . . .”

Andre Gregory surprising Wallace Shawn with a hug

I saw a baby blue jay land on our birdbath last summer. A jay tends to militantly scan its world to see what nuisance it might need to shoo off, while the average bird is constantly rubber-necking to stay alive. I suspect there’s too much pain involved in the kill for a cat to mess with a blue jay. And red-tails don’t circle over our house often enough to inspire fear—if they are a threat to jays. (We get no leopards here in Pittsford—I mean, this is upstate New York, not Ohio!) So I was certain this baby bird was looking around because he was fascinated by what he saw.  He sat there intending to drink the water, but he never dipped his beak: he was too amazed by everything around him. That’s how it looked, anyway. He hopped from birdbath to privet to cherry tree, just looking around, checking it all out. He looked amazed. He sat there staring for so long at one particular thing after another, I’m sure he forgot himself in the process—completely unaware of how exposed he was, there on the birdbath.

I noted all this down in my journal because that blue jay seemed to represent a kind of lost ideal of the artist for me. Granted, I’m anthropomorphizing this little bird, but still. Aldous Huxley talked about this state of mind, a deep hunger to simply look, to see, in The Doors of Perception. He celebrated the way the world appears if you actually see it, without any intentions or concepts to warp the act of looking. Andre Gregory, in My Dinner with Andre, talks about the same state of mind he enjoyed briefly earlier in his life: “But I really felt as if I were floating above the ground, not walking. And you know, I could do things like go out to the highway and watch the lights go from red to green and think, How wonderful. It was a feeling of recognizing everything, of being able to be aware of the reality and specialness of even the most ordinary things. And that feeling lasted for quite a while, and then gradually it faded.” I love this passage, though you could easily dismiss it as the sort of thing you hear from stoners. It certainly does sound like an outdated refrain from the Sixties. And, yes, Huxley required mescaline to get back to this purity of perception, where it’s as if you’re seeing everything for the first time. But that sort of perception doesn’t require drugs. A great painting will do the job.

Those last four words—and then it faded—are among the saddest in the language.  An awareness of the gap between that state of heightened perception—the sense of being in love, not with a person, but with everything—and the way it wanes as you age, formed a big part of the program of the Romantic movement in Europe and became a central thread of Modernism, at least in its early phases. Part of that tradition wanted to reclaim the purity and emotion of raw, childhood perceptions or at least an untainted, uncivilized equivalent of them.  Rimbaud looms big on this score. Klee. Burchfield. Chagall. The surge of interesting in tilt-shift photography, the way in which it can make an ordinary scene appear to be a child’s glimpse into a diorama filled with toys, owes something to this same instinct, the desire to get back to the appetite for the intense perceptions of early life. Tilt-shift makes you feel as if you float over a world that might otherwise seem overwhelming. The recent music of Tune Yards has some of this same aura: the surprise of fresh, original and spontaneous perception. Even though the lyrics to the songs have darker implications. Likewise, Basquiat’s work, which looks as if a child has been set loose with crayons and watercolor, plays the same game: the noble savage, the “radiant child”, working on impulse and emotion without second-guessing, though his paintings are clearly meant to bear more social and political weight than a child would invest in them. Warhol cut the same figure: the balloon room at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburg is pure playfulness, just an electric fan stirring the air with a swarm of shiny helium balloons floating around at random. It isn’t just a room; it’s a state of mind. Yet Warhol undercut this aura by making it sound as if he believed art was just a branch of business. Keith Haring, same story: childlike, fun, and cheerful. I think those who love these artists are drawn to the unpretentious simplicity, the simulation of uninhibited joy and playfulness, inherent in the work. Though the work is quickly invested, either by the artist or the critics, in “meanings” other than this fresh state of perception. Sadly, these artists don’t convey much to me, yet I think many people have responded to them because, at first look, they appear to be making work that doesn’t require a priesthood of experts to deconstruct: it’s appears to be simple and primal.

For me, though, all great painting seems to cleanse the doors of perception. It doesn’t need to seem childlike; it just needs to be good. When I saw Fragonard’s Progress of Love at The Frick—a luxurious and cool commentary on a woman’s power to orchestrate a romance—the genius of his talent, his incredible skill, made it feel as if the top of my head had been lifted off, a feeling Emily Dickenson required of poetry. I don’t especially like Fragonard, but his brilliance is unmistakable, and he does what I want great art to do. The way his handling of paint created a continuum between earth and sky, so that the trees appeared to be green cloud formations and the sky merely a rarified extension of the trees . . . it offered the sense of walking into a world in which everything is slightly different, and deeply fascinating. I felt the way I like to imagine that baby blue jay felt, looking around at his new world.

 

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