gall and gumption

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

From the Mountain

A friend comes through town on a visit from Martha's Vineyard, bringing me, as usual, the latest and best that is thought there. If my friend were a cynical and jaded person like me, it would be OK fun. But my friend has a sincere faith in the laws that rule the tenure of ideas in places like that. And this makes it much more interesting. She is the most earnest, sincere, all-out, full-hearted status-seeker I have ever known. It is awesome, a thing of beauty and wonder.

A couple of years ago, by what twists and turns I don't know, Haiti became a big thing on the Vineyard. And all these well-to-do women were flying there to wash the feet of destitute sick people in a hospice. It was a profound experience for them, as you may imagine. Actually I can't imagine--or so I was told by my friend who had gone and washed feet.

Whatever happens to these people (the Vineyard ladies, not the Haitian sick people), I infer with some wonderment, is not like anything that has ever happened to anyone anywhere else. On this visit my friend tells me with great solemnity that it is very important to know where your food comes from. At dinner we order linguini with clams. She asks the waiter where the clams come from.

The entertainment part for me is that whatever an idea may be when it goes up the mountain of public opinion, when it comes back down the mountain it always seems to have acquired a layer or two of silliness and, somehow, unreality. I don't know why this is. My friend, committed now to the locavore movement, helped to slaughter a pig. Apparently there is a group of ladies who felt it was necessary to learn to slaughter a pig. As an experience.

It is always as an experience that one goes through these things. Experience is expensive, so a lot of people can't have it, you see.

My friend and I went to the National Gallery to see two exhibitions. The first was the paintings by Arcimboldo. They were great fun as stunts but they were rather ugly. In the gallery with them were four or five tiny drawings by Leonardo da Vinci--some of his grotesque heads. The biggest of these was not two inches high. And yet I spent more time with them than on the Arcimboldos. Despite all their clever detail, I did not like looking at the paintings. A roast squab that turns out to be a nose is two kinds of ugly, that's all.

What to do with the Rather Less Than Great Works of the Past may be the occasion for another blog post in the future.

Then my friend and I went to look at the exhibition called The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting 1848-1875. The show was mostly photographs, and these included portraits of some famous Victorians and a lot of staged "arty" photographs of young women and girls, just what you'd expect from the sort of earnest late-romantic vision of people like the pre-Raphaelites. When I look at such things, these ethereal-looking ladies with leaves in their hair and wistful dreamy remote expressions, that sort of "Why have you just woken me up?" look about the eyes, I have a harder and harder time separating them out from 19th-century capitalism. The otherworldliness of the pre-Raphaelite world looks like a rebellion against capitalism, but it also seems like a product of it. Not necessarily in a bad way. The juggernaut of capitalism as it chews up everything seems to throw off these nostalgias. The fact that the Victorians used photography to sort of capture images of it, as promptly as they turned to painting, and with such an adventurous sense of beauty, I find touching. They had a trust in the image. What do we get at this late stage of the Empire? We get that woman who dresses up newborn babies like bugs, and Thomas Kinkade, for our sins.

There were half a dozen or so paintings and some of these were very familiar. What I had never attended to in looking at reproductions of them was how small they are. Rossetti's "The Last Meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere" is tiny! The effect is startling. I mean, if you look at a reproduction of, say, a Monet in an art book and you go to the museum and there's the Monet full size, you think, yes, super. But you don't expect a painting to be hanging on the wall about the same size as it is in the reproduction. Especially when it is such a large subject.

Some of these painters could have taught Kinkade a few things about light. They went for this sort of jewel-like color and detail in rendering. It's the quality of attention that makes someone like Millais or Rosetti interesting to me, so it was kind of cool that the last painting just before the exit was one of John Ruskin's watercolors. He wasn't a pre-Raphaelite exactly but he advocated a sort of ethics of attention that they all shared: careful, truthful observation of outer things, honest intention in every single mark, that yields a sort of inner revelation. Trust in the observed thing and truth to it. So here was this lovely little watercolor of just some rocks in a rushing stream. You don't get to see these little Ruskin watercolors very often, and I was enjoying it because when I was in St. Kitts, living on a much more slender diet of reading I did, for some reason, have some of Ruskin's books on drawing. His integrity as a critic and writer, his seriousness, made him good company.

My friend from the Vineyard looked over my shoulder and said, "I've got friends who can do better than that."

"No, you don't," I said.

"Yes, I do," she said.

"No, you don't," I said. "This is Ruskin. You don't know what he's doing, you don't know how he does it."

"Yes, I do."

Well, fuck it. So I just shut my mouth. What can you do?