This week I love “How Children Change the Way We See” by Rumaan Alam for the New Yorker. Never mind that I donít have children, donít intend to, kettles-of-fish and eggs-in-a-basket, etc. I donít need to, to enjoy things like this (that third para, especially):
We use our children to gratify our own egos. We play BjŲrk to lull the newborn to sleep, post babyís first bite of tahini brownies to Instagram, dress the toddler as Maxine Waters for Halloween. We put our tots in pussy hats, or teach them to chant “Choose Life.”
This is performance as well as indoctrination. Along with instruction in tooth brushing or shoelace tying, parents hope to pass along their passions, their politics, their taste. Itís a process so consuming that, as an adult, itís impossible to distinguish what you think, like, and believe from what you were taught to think, like, and believe.
Instead of a passion for the Yankees or fly-fishing or birding, I want to pass on to my sons a love of books, music, and art. I accept that this is partly about the gratification of my own ego, but itís also one of the only ways I know of making a rich life.
I think of a friend, bargaining with her son: a morning at the museum today for so many minutes of Minecraft tomorrow. I think of that site for a poem a day, set up by a sister and two brothers, in tribute to their mother, who stuck a piece of poetry in each of their lunchboxes, for every day of National Poetry Month. I think of another friend, telling Billy Collins at a reading how her mother played tapes of his poetry to her as a child, and so to listen to his voice now, at forty, is to be transported to bedtime at four. I think of my father teaching me to love greathearted movies—dark-cornered musicals like Cabaret and Gigi, wide windy epics like Lawrence and Zhivago, little-bitty amulets like City Lights and Paradiso—in that way that is the best of all ways to teach anybody to love anything.
I think of all the different visitors we have had already, this first year in Florence. The city serves as a kind of sieve. There are plenty who love the food (or, at least, when it comes to some of them, that think they do). Plenty more who love the shopping. And more than enough who are here for no real reason at all, other than a bourgeois bucket list or a cruise ship chukker. But there are a few who love, appreciate, understand what art means and how much it matters. Who get that to come to a city like this is... Is what? Is a more or less unfinishable sentence.
I keep reading. I find this:
The imperative to spend less time engaged with art means I judge more quickly which piece in a gallery to give my attention to. [...] It has been helpful to learn that engagement with art doesnít necessitate engaging with every piece of it—that just as my children get tired, so, too, do my eyes.
I think of that friend of Jenniferís. How when she took him to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, a place where people spend hours, across days and weeks and lifetimes, he stopped in front of one piece—it was perhaps the second or third they encountered—and stood before it for twenty minutes. Transfixed, thinking, utterly intent. Then he turned to her and said: Alright. Thatís perfect. Letís go.
I think also of Adam Gordon, in Ben Lernerís Leaving the Atocha Station, walking every weekday morning to Room 58 of the Prado, to look at one painting and one painting only. I think of that brilliant bit in the book, in which Gordon/Lerner obsesses about his inability to have a profound experience of art. I pull the book from the shelf so I can re-read that brilliant bit. Along the way I get to revisit the idea of what he called the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf...
This brings me to another point in the New Yorker piece, where Alam remembers the reaction of his younger son, as a toddler, to Michael Heizerís “Negative Megalith #5” at Dia:Beacon:
...when Little was so little that I held him in my arms, we looked at Michael Heizerís “Negative Megalith #5,” an imposing piece of granite set into the wall—not shaped in any particular way, just a trace of natureís grandeur caught inside a museum.
He describes how the three year-old gripped me tight, presumably fearful that the thing would just topple over onto us. I like to imagine that Heizer would love this response, and I like to remember that sometimes an artistís aim isnít to elicit interpretation but pure feeling.
These are days in which I am fresh from finally reading Susan Sontagís “Against Interpretation.” Even if they werenít, I suspect this idea, that sometimes an artistís aim isnít to elicit interpretation but pure feeling, would feel particularly particular. As it is, I stop and think: Well, yes. And maybe a lot more than sometimes.
At the end of the piece, Alam takes his son to see a Louise Bourgeois exhibition at MOMA, where he watches him plopped down on the floor in front of Bourgeoisís “Spider,” another sculpture on a massive scale, this one perched atop a chain-link enclosure:
I wondered if he took the fence beneath the spider for a web. I remembered how at the recent Alexander Calder show at the Whitney, Little saw just what the sculptor saw: a fish, an octopus, a snake. But I didnít ask Little whether he saw what Louise Bourgeois did, because what we make of art is a private matter.
These are days in which all of Florence seems in flux about Urs Fischerís “Big Clay #4” in Piazza Signoria. I think of a recent piece of mindbogglingly manytoned silliness in The Florentine, about what kind of art should be allowed near other art, about what kind of art can be great art, and about who is qualified to say so.
I go back and re-read the last line of Rumaan Alamís piece:
I only want him to understand that art is a question being asked of us, that thereís no correct response, and that anyone can answer.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[mercoledž 13 dicembre 2017 ore 12:23:11] [¶]
Itís three times since the summer already, that I have read this out to someone, or wanted to. The last time was a wanted-to but a couldnít. And so I decided, for next time, to put it here.
Madrid is a strange place anyway. I do not believe anyone likes it much when he first goes there. It has none of the look that you expect of Spain. It is modern rather than picturesque, no costumes, practically no Cordoban hats, except on the heads of phonies, no castanets, and no disgusting fakes like the gypsy caves at Granada. There is not one local-colored place for tourists in the town. Yet when you get to know it, it is the most Spanish of all cities, the best to live in, the finest people, month in and month out the finest climate and while the other big cities are all very representative of the province they are in, they are either Andalucian, Catalan, Basque, Aragonese, or otherwise provincial. It is in Madrid only that you get the essence. The essence, when it is the essence, can be in a plain glass bottle and you need no fancy labels, nor in Madrid do you need any national costumes; no matter what sort of building they put up, though the building itself may look like Buenos Aires, when you see it against that sky you know it is Madrid. If it had nothing else than the Prado it would be worth spending a month in every spring, if you have money to spend a month in any European capital. But when you can have the Prado and the bullfight season at the same time with El Escorial not two hours to the north and Toledo to the south, a fine road to Avila and a fine road to Segovia, which is no distance from La Granja, it makes you feel very badly, all question of immortality aside, to know that you will have to die and never see it again.
The Prado is altogether characteristic of Madrid. From the outside it looks as unpicturesque as an American High School building. The pictures are so simply arranged, so easy to see, so well-lighted and with no attempt, with one exception, the Velazquez of the small maids of honor, to theatricalize or set off masterpieces that the tourist looking in the red or blue guide book to see which are the famous ones feels vaguely disappointed. The colors have kept so wonderfully in the dry mountain air and the pictures are so simply hung and so easy to see that the tourist feels cheated. I have watched them being puzzled. These cannot be great pictures, the colors are too fresh and they are too simple to see. These pictures are hung as though in a modern dealerís gallery where they are being shown off to their best and clearest advantage in order to be sold. It cannot be right, the tourist thinks. There must be a catch somewhere. They get their moneyís worth in Italian galleries where they cannot find any given picture nor see it any too well if they do find it. That way they feel they are seeing great art. Great art should have great frames and needs either red plush or bad lighting to back it up. It is as though, after having known of certain things only through reading pornographic literature, the tourist should be introduced to an attractive woman quite unclothed with no draperies, no concealments and no conversation and only the plainest of beds.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[lunedž 04 dicembre 2017 ore 12:11:21] [¶]
On the Frecciarossa from Rome to Florence (and onward to Milan), a family of four sits across the aisle from me. Italian, and, by a certain, predominant set of Italian standards, well-dressed. The mother is in a sweater of fuzzy pink wool, on the front of which has been appliquťd a pair of stars in rhinestone bagatelles, and the word “Love” (written out in a lavishly cursive script made up of shiny white pearls). Black jeans that have been distressed and then reassured with sprays of black sequins. Black velvet boots with black beaded bows on the toes. The father is in a brown wool sweater and the kind of jeans that are exactly as interesting and unusual as an Italian manís jeans must be, but no more. They—especially the father—are deeply involved in reviewing fractions with the older of the two children, a girl of about eight (though I am terrible at guessing ages). She is hesitant, trying out words like numeratore and denominatore. The father leans forward across the tray table, mostly patient, occasionally exasperated. The mother, less invested, at least in this aspect of her daughterís existence (as opposed, one would suspect, to something perhaps like the daughterís sweater, which features an embroidered unicorn with tufts of fuzzy wool in candyfloss pink, blue, and lavender), leans back in the seat, massaging her temples, and chiming in occasionally, when itís obvious enough to be safe, to say “Georgia, svegliati.” Towards the end, she shakes her head coyly at her husband, and confesses that “non ho capito niente nemmeno io...” Something must work though, because later when she comes back from a snack run to the dining car (she has been gone all of ten minutes) and sits down, her husband gets up, steps around the tray table (they are sitting across from each other), bends over her seat, and smooches her for a good forty seconds. Then he sits back down again.
Itís in those ten minutes (when the mother and little boy go off to get snacks), that the girl, apparently on a break from the hell of her fractions, uses a spare sheet of squared paper, left over from scratchwork, to write what she announces is a story. When finished, she reads it out to her father as he sits across from her. A story about a little girl “che va in giro per il mondo.” She is excited to read it, excited to present and share in the experience of something she has made, the way any human being is excited when she makes something she believes to be interesting. I hear snatches of the story. “Un giorno...” and “La mamma era noiosa...” and so on. It takes all of three minutes for her to read. When she finishes, the father says “bene,” without looking up from his smartphone. Inside of me, a hundred little girls are a little bit heartbroken. Every one of them knows how she feels.
[Frecciarossa 9558, Roma~Firenze]
[venerdž 01 dicembre 2017 ore 20:12:11] [¶]