From a recent essay in Salmagundi, a literary journal published at Skidmore College.
Art is for increasing life. That, I believe, after all the other purposes receive their due, is really what it’s for—why we revere it, why we give our hearts to it. What do I mean by increasing life? How can we live more, given that we can’t live longer? Through attention and intensity. Being fully present to the world, and feeling without reservation: the two things that making art requires and that experiencing it involves. “Being in love,” Tim Kreider writes, “is one of the only times when life is anything like art,” but the reverse is also true. Art is one of the only times when life is anything like being in love. Attention, intensity…I was listening to Abbey Road the other day. Somewhere between “You Never Give Me Your Money” and “Golden Slumbers,” I finally understood Nabokov’s definition of aesthetic bliss: “a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” It is in this respect, and this one only, that art is utopian (and the reason that it gets dragooned for service to political utopias, which are a completely different kind of thing). Art connects us with another world, which has no place in ours. That world is, to use a term at which my reason recoils, the spirit world… Art is a fountain of spirit—that’s the closest I can come to it, though I’m thinking less of water than of magma. There is a crack, somewhere. Something flows, from somewhere. We gather around it; we build temples to it, which we call theaters and museums; we worship its earthly channels, whom we call geniuses; we talk about it endlessly. We may even posit that the thing that our existence is for is art.
Too bad that Deresiewicz recoils from the world of the spirit but, like many such people, he writes more lucidly and clearly of that world than many of us who claim not to recoil…
The whole essay is well worth reading.
Reading it myself, I thought back to Sunday afternoon when, propped up in bed with The Upside-Down World: Meeting with the Dutch Masters, by Benjamin Moser, both arms suddenly shot into the air and I exploded with an exultant “YES!”
Moser was writing of Adriaen Coorte (1665-1707), a Golden Age Dutch artist I’d only just discovered, in another book about the Dutch masters: Thunderclap: A Memoir of Life and Art and Sudden Death by Laura Cumming.
Little is known about many of the artists of this extraordinarily fecund era of Dutch art, and Coorte (1665-1707) is no exception. It’s known that he was poor. He painted “still-lifes”–though the term hardly does him justice–often postcard-sized, often on random pieces of paper (as he apparently couldn’t afford canvas) that, if in his mind passed muster, he might later glue to a piece of wood.
He often arranged a simple grouping of fruit or vegetables on the same stone plinth that, with a background of depthless black, appears in many of his works.
This was the passage that caught my eye:
“Back in Zeeland, Coorte continued to sharpen his focus, tinkering with his still-lifes with a concentration bordering on the obsessive. He fiddled with what looks like the same bunch of asparagus–zooming in and out, toying with the lighting, addding, and then removing, a few currants; now trying them out in combination with an artichoke, now with a bowl of strawberries–for no less than eighteen years.”
(On a related note, I had to look up the meaning of “fl.”, given as a range of dates in the gooseberries painting above: “from Latin for ‘flourished): denotes a date or period during which a person was known to have been alive or active.” So who knows how long the painting took, or how long Coorte “fiddled” with this masterpiece).
He seemed hardly concerned, as Moser observes, with marketing. Rather, “His intense focus on the bunch of asparagus suggests that his paintings were primarily private attempts to solve aesthetic problems.”
Either you’re the kind of person who thinks that is an entirely worthy project to which to devote one’s life–or you’re not. If you are, you’re probably also the kind of person who, sensing intuitively that beauty and morality are linked, believes that learning how to love one’s neighbor is also a worthy life projecct.
Moser notes that like Bashō, the 17th-century haiku master (quoting Bashō’s translator), “‘sought a vision of eternity in the things that are, by their own very nature, destine to perish.’ Passing time, and therefore death, is the still-life painter’s real subject.”