You are your world

Gorky self-portrait

In a painting, you can’t really hide who you are. Your identity is what someone encounters first, looking at your work, and it’s primarily what you’re offering someone who is beguiled by what you do. I’m not sure most criticism would know what to do with this notion: how do you deconstruct another human being’s mind and heart in its entirely? Does it make sense to ask “What does it mean to be Bill Murray?” Sure, if you are asking, what does it entail, in terms of the divorce, the drinking, the toll of all the brilliant acting, but not if you’re asking that question the way you ask “What does that painting mean?” But if the painting is just the man who made it, in microcosm, then how can it make sense to try to extract something out of the painting apart from what you see in it? You can’t break a person down into her constituent parts and explain her away. (Sure wish I could, sometimes.) A whole human being is really what’s secretly being delivered in any work of creative imagination: music, painting, poetry, or fiction. I tried to think about this here a while back but it came and went, inadequately, and I didn’t give it that much more thought because once you say it, what more is there to say? How do you build some critical theory out of, “Hey, I really like that X. I like spending time with that X.” (The way you “like” a person, which is a pretty unfathomable phenomenon.) But this morning, in replying to an email from a good friend, it leaped back up at me and insisted on getting some attention. I wrote this, though I’ve revised it slightly:

Some peoples’ company you enjoy for a little while and then you move on. Then there are some people who are a part of your life permanently from the moment you meet them. I think art is just like that. The work of some artists never loses its mystery and you keep going back for more for as long as you want and it never gets old. Others have an impact on you for a little while and then you grow out of it and wonder why you were so charmed. I think of art as a corollary to friendship and love between individuals, because that’s really what you’re getting in the art: the person himself or herself, along with their values and experiences and wisdom or lack of it, translated into more lasting terms, into sounds or colors and images or words. When I read Salinger, I’m living with Salinger himself, not just his characters. I have him in the room with me–maybe not the whole person but the best of him, the core of his soul–and he’s keeping me company. He’s there with me, my close friend. In a one-directional way, at least. I don’t need anybody else to introduce me to him or what he “means.” I get it. I love the guy. Quit messing with it. To be saying these things is so far outside the way criticism works now, isn’t it? It seems that way to me. Postmodernism is so intentionally sophisticated about explicating what art does and is—yet most of the time what I love just seems simple and direct in the way it reaches me. It’s all about one human being recognizing another human being in the fullest possible sense in the work, whatever the work is, and wanting to spend time listening to, or watching, that other human being, absorbing the way they apprehend and occupy their world. You want to have them close by, sharing your time with you, reminding you of who you are, if you’re lucky.

What that also means to me is that you are the world you inhabit. So when someone responds to you, they are responding to your world, the angle from which you absorb experience, so that they’re seeing the world you see, and that’s magnified or at least made more visible and explicit through art. It’s more common to say, in relation to a novelist, that something is right out of Kafka’s world or Jane Austen’s world, but it’s just as true of painters, that you are in Avery’s world, or Braque’s, or Turner’s, or Giotto’s. So that being in his or her world, you are spending time with that world’s originator, the one who is present everywhere in it, but nowhere visible.

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