21 February 2008

Seeing And Believing

A week ago Tuesday I was on the Lower East side visiting a friend, and while I was in her apartment, it began to snow outside. It was only the second time all winter that a measurable amount of snow had fallen, and the first time it happened during daylight hours.

Her block, nondescript by most standards, had been utterly transformed during the couple of hours I'd been indoors. The forlornly bare branches of the street trees were now sinuous and tangled and cast in sharp relief by the white coating clinging to their leeward sides. The normally dull red brick of the building fronts had grown shiny and voluptuous beneath their filigree of jet black and silver fire escapes. The snowflakes tumbled thick and fast as if someone were shoveling them into my face from just above and ahead of me, making it necessary to squint if I was to see anything at all of where I was going, but as a result I saw the city - as I do every now and again - with new eyes. It was staggeringly, take-your-breath-away beautiful, or at least so I thought until I mentioned the experience to another friend later that night.

"Well," he said, "I could say a lot of things about New York, but I'm not sure 'beautiful' would be one of them. Interesting, sure, powerful, impressive, imposing, fascinating, but beautiful? I don't think so, at least not in the conventional sense of the word."

I redoubled my efforts to describe to him how the stark right angles and jutting cornices and the casual collision of the whimsical and the brutally pragmatic had blurred together in an exquisite and evanescent tableau made all the more precious by the swiftness with which it would vanish once the passing snowstorm gave way to a sullen freezing rain. But he brushed aside my efforts, and I thought back to the conversation I'd been having at my other friend's house just before I'd stepped out into the snowstorm.

She's a painter, you see, and a rather good one, and while I know little about the theory and next to nothing about the technique of painting, I like to talk about it nonetheless, especially with regard to the dichotomy between figurative and abstract art. I'll admit it, I don't have a lot of use for abstract art, but at the same time, I'm not especially keen on photo-realism, either. Once the camera, especially the digital camera, became readily available to almost anyone, the function of painting necessarily had to change, I opined, and she, surprisingly - most artists just smile indulgently or simply ignore my attempts at philosophizing - more or less agreed with me.

Someone like Hopper strikes me as an example of what painting can and should do in the modern era: his settings and subjects are instantly recognizable, physically as well as emotionally and - if it's not too high-faluting a concept, spiritually. Yet as vivid as his paintings are, there's nothing remotely photo-realistic about them. If you were so inclined, you could pick them to pieces, showing how what in real life would be crisp and sharply defined lines and shapes turn into vague and suggestive blurs and shadows in a classic Hopper painting.

He's not painting a thing or a place or even people, you see, he's painting an idea, in much the same way as a Chinese character, once inaccurately labeled by Westerners as a "pictogram" is now more accurately known as an "ideogram," literally a map or graph of an idea. And that's exactly what the artist should be creating with a painting, or at least what I would be trying to do if I had the faintest shred of talent with pencil or paintbrush.

Since I don't, I have to try and do the same thing with words, and if I were in a mood to feel sorry for myself, I'd argue that that was even harder than doing it in pictures, though ultimately I don't know if there's a heck of a lot of difference. What I do know is that I saw something of consuming beauty, something I, and, I suspect, quite a few others, hadn't noticed before. Somehow I had to create an image not of the actual street scene I'd witnessed, but of the feelings and ideas and memories and associations it evoked in me.

And why? So that by passing them on to others I could trigger a new set of feelings and ideas and memories and associations in them, ones that might have next to nothing to do with the ones I had personally experienced, but would nonetheless evoke in them a sense of wonder and appreciation somewhat akin to my own. At least I think that's how it works, and ultimately, as hard as it is to do, it's easier to do it than to talk about it.

So let me just tell you: New York was beautiful that day. Incredibly so, and although I only realized this by everything suddenly appearing very different, the lasting understanding was that New York is very beautiful every day, in as many ways and variations as there are people to observe them. Don't want to take my word for it? Go otu and have a look around for yourself then.

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