I spent most of Wednesday afternoon at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas. I’d last been there two years earlier, when some of the exhibits were in the midst of renovation. There’s definitely something to be said for the experience of walking around quietly, looking at things humans have made. The Blanton’s current visiting exhibit is of Aboriginal art. That blew me away because its system of representation is profoundly distinct from Western modes, a difference more profound than anything I’ve encountered with natural language. I am still trying to make sense of it.
When I’d worked a little on digesting the visiting exhibition, I dutifully went upstairs and set in on the ancient European art. It was my usual mode of operation in a museum: I was looking at objects and images and thinking about what I could borrow or transform to use in my writing. In that mode, I was most struck by an ancient Armenian bronze belt. I scribbled some notes about it to perhaps use in a book.
I couldn’t cling to that “I’m a writer in a museum” mode, though, as I moved through the exhibition halls. The next line in my notes is “What place art in a disintegrating society?” The news has been awful. To say “our institutions are under assault” is a lame euphemism for “corruption is destroying our democracy.” Art has seemed so…futile, especially when I’ve been reading about 19th-Century revolutions.
I kept going, though, because I still love art. I particularly wanted to see again some pieces I remembered from my previous visit, two selections from Vincent Valdez’s The Strangest Fruit. These are life-sized paintings of Latino men in the physical attitude of being bound and hanged. The backgrounds are white. Neither noose nor ropes are shown. They hit me. I remembered them and wanted to go back. They hit me again. So did Charles White’s Homage to Sterling Brown, a painting that hadn’t been on display during my previous visit because of renovations. In it, Sterling Brown sits, holding a target before him.
Other works have, of course, arrested my attention. I vividly recall just staring at Picasso’s Woman with a Crow for long, long minutes at the Toledo Museum of Art. The colors of the Blanton’s 17th-Century copperplate paintings hold my attention in the same way. But neither the Picasso nor the copperplates forced me to think the way Valdez and White did.
We Make Because We Must
That was the next thing I wrote down: “We make because we must.” I’ve been messing about with writing with various degrees of seriousness since I was in third grade. (That’s when I first tried to write a novel.) I distinctly remember telling a teammate at an alumni tournament that I was working on my dissertation but kept getting distracted by wanting to write stories. (Best handler I ever played with, and a fine writer himself.) I don’t really seem able to stop.
That drive to make art doesn’t go away just because our hearts are sore. It’s harder. Some days it’s impossible. I don’t have it figured out beyond trying to take breaks from social media (especially Twitter, which seems to be fine-tuned to send me into fury or despair). Some days I get things written. Some days I don’t. Some days I do a bit of research. Some days I just stare out the window and think about made-up places.
There is no transcendence, only empathy.
When I was in high school, a wonderful English teacher got me the opportunity to go to a writing workshop near Sun Valley. While out in the woods near a stream, I was, for lack of a better term, thunderstruck by a poem. The world slowed down and sped up simultaneously. I could not make the words come out of my fingers as fast as they were coming to my brain. It was a paroxysm of language that felt more like a beast I was riding than a poem I was writing. I thought then that I had found some kind of transcendence.
The closest I ever really came to re-experiencing that feeling was a few years later during a breakdown. The quality of feeling like a spectator to my own mind, of grappling with something impossibly large, was nearly the same. I did not for an instant think of it as transcendence.
That statement up above, “there is no transcendence, only empathy” came to me in the art museum as I reflected on Vincent Valdez’s work, on Charles White’s work. I don’t have an entirely firm grasp on what, precisely, it means, but it resonates for me. It resonates so much for me that for the first time in a very long while I caught myself thinking about Capital-T Truth.
The idea of transcendence I had as a teenager, whether I knew it or not, was Romantic: the solitary artist walks in the wilderness, searching for the sublime. That sublime thing is higher and deeper than our usual perception and understanding, glimpsed and able to be glimpsed only in moments. It was absolutely a Capital-T Truth that only the most profound artists and thinkers could find. When they did, it was transportive.
There’s something to the idea that art can take you outside your habitual boundaries of self. That’s why we fall in love with stories. That’s why I could stare at that Picasso and be sucked in. That’s why I felt the need to return several times to the Valdez paintings, why they stuck with me after my first visit. Beyond the skill of their rendering and the brilliance of the approach, the images pushed me past my habits, past my usual inclinations. That’s empathy, and art puts you in a place where you cannot help it. You can’t “well, actually…” a painting. You can’t fence in a piece of music with questions. You can’t turn away from the discomfort a story might make you feel without turning away from the story itself.
We make art so we can understand. As creators, the process sometimes becomes the understanding. Sometimes we have something specific to say. Sometimes, we even manage to say that thing. We want to be understood even if—especially if—what we’re expressing can’t be articulated. Sound transcendental? Maybe. But there’s a hell of a difference between Ferdinand David’s wanderer up on his foggy hilltop, looking for something beyond human experience, and looking at Charles White’s interpretation of Sterling Brown against a backdrop of the man’s achievements even as he sits holding a brightly-colored target.
None of this means art “must” be about social justice, or about politics, or about experiences that cross the vast gulfs humans have collectively inflicted on one another. (Be wary of anybody who says “art must.”) We can make art about what we know intimately, experience things that remind us of what we already understand. Those are choices we face as makers. We just have to remember that choosing to avoid hard questions doesn’t make them go away, and that the avoidance is also a choice.
As a fantasy writer, there’s a degree of escape in my work. If I want to write a world that never experienced chattel slavery, I get to do that (although it leads to a lot of questions about what an industrial revolution might look like). I can tell myself “wouldn’t it be cool if…” and just do it. Try it, anyway. I make because I must.
Really, though, I make stories and go experience art because art is a place where empathy lives. We make because we must, because we wish to understand and to be understood and to connect, whether it’s with another person or an idea or an experience. It’s awesome, in both the casual and formal senses of the word.
We make because we must; there is no transcendence, only empathy. I feel like those are semi-colon close, and want to keep working on figuring out how.