The Experience of Art

Once, a number of years ago, a young woman I knew vaguely through a mutual friend told me that, for her, art always soured after explanation.

I shouldn’t say art soured for her; I should say her experience of art soured.

Whenever someone pressed her to explain how she felt about a particular piece, she went blank; she closed up; she even at times became defensive about her need to keep her feelings to herself. She just wanted to feel washed away or bowled over or destroyed or lifted or confirmed or empowered or — whatever some painting, film, installation, song or story made her feel, without having to explain away the feeling.

I’m not sure whether she tried explaining her need for silence — the why behind her need, I mean. Probably not; such explanation would’ve proven counter-intuitive, since all this was about her keeping her feelings to herself.

Likely, talking about what she felt or what she believed the piece meant ruined the experience of it for her. Ruptured it. Words failed to capture the wholeness and fullness of the experience. Words short-changed the experience. Words kept adding up, until eventually you wound up contradicting or negating or overcomplicating things. The more you tried explaining, the greater the gap between you and the experience became.

That’s how I imagine it, anyway. How she felt.

I could understand her view. I’ve always been generally reticent to speak about what I’m feeling. For example, I’m often the one who tells friends RE: movie or television spoilers, that what compels me to watch isn’t so much the want to know what happens next as it is the desire simply to experience how it all goes down. In that sense, I’m in it for the experience, just like the young woman.

While I could sympathize with her point of view, I’ve also had many occasions to wonder: can one ever connect with another on the subject of a particular painting or film or book or whatever if one refrains from discussing it? Didn’t the young woman’s (and didn’t my own?) radio silence RE: what she (or I) thought or felt about a work of art make the experience of art one-dimensional — personal, and maybe somewhat profound, but closed-looped, incapable of being enriched by various interpretations, comparisons, differences of opinion?

To put the question another way: did her experience really stick with her if she refused to discuss it, or did it lose some of its texture, the way most of our experiences do?

And what about challenging or controversial art? Such art is always controversial personally before it becomes socially controversial; that is, controversial art always challenges the viewer first, and through the viewer, society.

If this is so, then how might one make sense of a work that seems to preclude or ignore one’s point of view?

I never asked the young woman, and she never again made mention of her desire to keep private her experiences.

Later that same week, a friend of mine drove his car up onto the grounds of the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum, my hometown’s claim to fame.

He couldn’t say why he did it, though I suspect it had something to do with the fact we used to sit in adjoining booths, whole groups of us, at the Waffle House across the street from the museum’s front entrance. The restaurant’s wide windows afforded us an unobstructed view of the fighter jet Mr. Armstrong had flown while training to become an astronaut; just behind it, the moon-esque dome of the planetarium rose in perpetual homage to the man’s accomplishment. He grew up a couple miles away; his father’d been a jailer. A warden.

The place and its legacy had more or less been staring all of us in the face for years.

What that legacy was, what it meant, is difficult to describe.

(I should know better. I should possess the fact before I say anything about this man, because biographies have been written about him and because it’s best to trust verifiable sources when dealing in print with others’ lives. Most of what I know about his life and temperament is hearsay. I wonder if this has to do with my reluctance to speak about what I’m feeling. Does such a predilection predispose me to prefer fiction, the lives and worlds cobbled together from scraps in my own or another artists’ imagination?)

I believe he taught aeronautical engineering at the University of Cincinnati. I also believe he was a private man, somewhat reticent to give interviews, reluctant to make public appearances; as I remember it, he declined an invitation our city council sent him to return to Wapakoneta for the festivities they’d planned to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the moon landing.

In this, there’s something strangely familiar about him. I feel a kinship to him, at least insofar as the idea I have of him and the idea I have of my reluctance (resistance?) to explain what I’m feeling inhabit a similar intellectual space in my mind.

And when it comes to this man’s legacy and the ways it was broadcast rather loudly to me and my fluctuating group of friends piled into those booths, wreathed in clouds of cigarette smoke and the slightly noxious bouquet of griddle grease and tangy coffee, it seemed that the introverted, private, professorial man the museum was built to honor stood in direct contrast to the massiveness — the out-of-this-world-ness — of his achievement.

The experience the museum curators tried to bring to earth for the rest of us earthlings was at once easily documented yet impossible to commemorate.

There are space-suits. Moon rocks. A landing module one can look down into from a raised platform, taking in the padded and belted pilot’s chair, the instrument panel with its dizzying array of dials and switches and monitors monitoring God-knows-what. There were videos that played across the planetarium’s domed ceiling, which one watched while lying nearly on one’s back in a severely reclined seat in a theater built to accommodate a few hundred.

And there was, at the very end of the museum tour, the Infinity Room.

Imagine this: you walk from the theater into a dark space, where you’re told by a pre-recorded voice broadcast over ceiling-mounted loud-speakers to stand still and wait.

Looking around, you find yourself on a carpeted, railing’d walkway. Several rows of track lighting are positioned below the walkway, which is suspended some feet above the ground floor, which, like the walls and ceiling of this space, is covered with mirrors.

Soon, each light fixture beneath the walkway begins to roll and twist, throwing various shades of light across the mirrored surfaces.

You’ve heard of infinite regression?

It’s what happens when you see your reflection within a reflection within a reflection within a reflection… One mirror throws your reflection at the opposite facing mirror, which throws that reflection back to the first mirror, which then throws those reflections housed within a third reflection back across the isle… and so on, so that soon an infinite number of yous gets created within this space. An infinite number of yous performs the same gestures you initiate from your fixed position on the walkway. Wave once, and watch your progressively shrinking selves wave back. Clap or jump or kick out your legs in a dance, and each progressively smaller iteration of you dummies your flailings.

Not only are you afforded the opportunity to watch yourself diminish within each iteration; the space you’re standing in, though only marginally larger than your bedroom at home, suddenly expands in all directions. Suddenly, by virtue of the simple shift in perception enforced by the mirrored regressions, you’re drifting in infinite space, watching all your shrinking selves wave, smile, and dance into oblivion.

This was what the museum and Neil Armstrong and achievement of any kind came to mean to me: you had to get out of where you came from to do anything worthwhile. If you succeeded, the people you left behind would likely love the hell out of you; and since, by some dumb luck, you and those others had been born and raised within the same twenty-five to fifty-mile radius, they might share in your achievement, claim part of it for themselves.

Whether you were an iteration of their aspiration or they were an iteration of your former, pre-greatness self would have been difficult to discern. Troublingly so.

Infinite Regression: look back, and see all those strangers looking right at you.

When he drove onto the museum’s lawn, my friend had the young woman along with him. Contrary to her views about art and experience, she’d been more than willing to discuss what it had felt like to ride with my friend. She’d suggested the experience had been transgressive and powerful because (I believe these were her words; time has faded the memory somewhat, so I may have her a bit wrong), “no one had any idea what to do about it!”

Meaning the authorities.

Let me tell you: I-75 runs just past the museum’s back lot; maybe a hundred yards separates the southbound lane’s shoulder and the base of the museum’s planetarium. Anyone driving past Exit 111 would’ve seen my friend’s headlights blazing as he drove across that back lot.

He was trespassing at the very least. He might also have been cited for destruction of property. Or worse.

To me, it evidenced what it felt like to grow up in that particular town at that particular moment in time — post 9/11, right smack in the middle of the historical vacuum left after the tech bubble burst. Those of my friends who’d been through college were weighing the nearly prohibitive cost of graduate school against the near-certainty we’d find no one willing to pay us a dime without an advanced degree.

Those of us who hadn’t yet been to or hadn’t yet finished college found these concerns senseless.

We college grads failed to recognize how different were our concerns — hell, our entire worlds — compared to theirs.

On the other hand, they looked at those of us who’d finished college and saw a bunch of dreamers who just didn’t get how hopeless it felt to have almost fallen out of the picture economically and professionally.

I’m not sure it’s come through yet, but I’ve been circling around the belief, which I’ve held now close to nine years, that my friend’s driving around the moon represented a stab at art-making; such a belief renders much of this writing an attempt to do what I’ve mentioned has been a recurring difficulty for me: to explain what it feels like to experience — moreover, to make — art.

I’ve lately been writing urgent poetry. As one who aspires to make a little art, I’ve been trying to discern whether this poetry has artistic merit; as I’ve reflected on what and why I’ve been writing, I’ve also tried claiming a useful definition of art from the trouble I’ve gone through these past months, as well as some months I’d spent penning poems several years ago. For lack of anything clear and distinct, I can pick at a few qualities that may redeem the artistry of such poetry. For one, there’s the urgency I mentioned: the sense of something being on the verge of crumbling or failing; a wrong turn made ages ago coming to light only after one has reached the point of no return.

There’s also the sense that each piece has demanded of me its requisite pound of flesh. Sometimes that has meant looking hard at the times I stumbled or failed and imagining what might have been, had those stumblings or failures blossomed. At other times I’ve had to look closely at the ways I’m living now in hopes of seeing through to something larger.

I’ve had some trouble accepting the risks such poetry has demanded I make. This trouble has made me hesitant to publish these pieces; at times it has caused me serious doubts that what I have been and am doing is what I should be doing. Is it worth the risk?

Moreover, will I like who I see waving back at me when I look into the mirrors these poems create?

For all that, though, this may be where I’m most at risk of losing any claim to art with my poetry: the sense that something bright might emerge despite the darkness.

I didn’t intend to write about such things when I wrote this piece’s first few paragraphs. I was going to try and tell a story about my friend, and about this young woman and her reluctance to diminish her experience of art by explaining what she felt about a given piece.

It hadn’t occurred to me when I started writing this to see her reluctance to explain as a kind of explanation. And it hadn’t occurred to me to see my friend’s transgression as a kind of art.

I wasn’t ever close with the young woman; and I long ago fell out of touch with my friend, for the usual reasons people lose touch — distance; different educational and professional aspirations; means.

I was fortunate enough to run into his mother a couple years ago, when I was back in Wapakoneta for a few days at the tail end of summer. From her I learned that my friend had started college and was working toward an degree in Information Technology. There was a sense in the way she spoke that he’d gotten himself together, made a few decisions, and was focused and driven and working hard and feeling happy about the changes he’d made in his life. Like he’d been working long and hard at overcoming something and had finally managed to do so.

I expressed to her how happy I was to hear these things, and I told her to wish him luck.

A week or so later, I receive from her in the mail a One-Year Bible and another book I’ve since lost track of (likely I donated it to the local used bookstore because it reached a little too deeply into Catholic mysticism for my tastes). I’ve read from the Bible occasionally over the past few years, but when I first received it I read daily from its pages. Hungrily. I saw in each daily select room the chance to cultivate a kind of habit; through repetition, I suppose I believed I might achieve something. What that might be I can’t say; I don’t think I rightly knew then, either, what a habit of reading Scripture might offer me. A break from non-habitual living, perhaps. A break from doing things differently each day and hoping for better.

In those early days of reading, I encountered several proverbs I’d heard before but hadn’t known had come from the pages of the New Testament. I read psalms, the words of which always disintegrated the second I finished reading. I read from the Book of Isaiah accounts of burnings and enslavements, a battered people rising from bondage by virtue of the Grace and Power of God.

I don’t trust the sense I had when talking to my friend’s mother that my friend had been on the verge of falling. I didn’t at the time think he was falling; he was struggling maybe, and in doubt about his future. But he wasn’t on the verge of any sort of collapse. I didn’t believe that then, and I don’t now. I hadn’t at the time been able to name my feelings as doubt. I hadn’t at the time felt comfortable enough to make so bold a statement.

One of the Proverbs I read had first come to me through popular music (you may have heard Spoon’s “Before Destruction”): Before destruction a man’s heart is haughty.

While at first I thought what my friend had done when he’d driven around the museum grounds smacked of arrogance, I no longer think his act can be so easily reduced. Nor do I believe it was a sign that he sensed impending destruction.

I think of infinite regression now, and how so much of my memories of those years gets bound up with memories of what I experienced in the Infinity Room. I can’t help but think, in this context, that my friend may have had in mind the desire to disrupt his life’s pattern. He’d tried so many things to achieve such a disruption, and so many of those hadn’t worked. He needed to do something big, willy-nilly, and bold. Like the moonshot.

If viewed as such, I think the act had at least a tinge of hopefulness and light. It bled a little of the sort of brightness I’m struggling to capture in my own art, such as it is.

Hard as it has been for me to articulate that sentiment, I finally see it clearly — perhaps more clearly than I would have had I been sitting in the back-corner booth surprised by the sight of his headlights tracing an arc around the moonish dome.

I don’t write poetry out of arrogance. I do it to try and shake things up; rather than reduce an experience to its particulars, I want to see what’s possible. I might fall apart, but I hope that writing does the opposite and puts me back together. I risk falling apart in order to have a shot at, if not wholeness, then resolve.

Is it too broad a statement to make, saying that any risk, anything made from the materials one has at one’s disposal, aspires toward art?

One might establish compacted automobiles inside an old military storehouse in Texas and make of the way light plays over these collapsed shapes of the everyday, the industrial, something profound — a statement of impermanence, risk, collapse.

One might decide to drive around the lawn of the Air and Space Museum, after years and years living in the shadow of its proffered version of greatness, and achieve a similar kind of brilliance.

Granted, it likely only looks like an act of brilliance if you’re predisposed to seeing brilliance in rebellious acts.

But couldn’t one make a similar statement about all art? If it speaks to you, reaches you on a level at which it’s difficult to fully articulate its impact, then…?

That’s where I’m at. I may shift my thinking again over time. But right now, I’m inclined to say that, yes, even something so bold as a moonshot emerges from so hopeful and light a gesture as that willy-nilly, giddy transgression.


This post also appears on my Medium profile.

Image credit: Austin Neill via Unsplash

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. trE says:

    The beauty about being human: if we’re lucky, we get a new day every 24 hours to grow, feel, and experience new things. Art in and of itself does not need our help to simply be what it is after it’s produced. Aah… This is heaven-sent, Patrick.

    1. You once again show that the way through is one of poise and acceptance, Tre. Thanks so much for reading.

      You know, I have to say, reading your comment, I was like, “Of course! It was there all along, in the quiet the young woman I wrote about held when it came to art. Her keeping quiet was the key and I didn’t see it!” I knew there was much more to her silence than I understood. But acceptance, accepting the work on its own terms — you’re right, Tre. That’s it. I didn’t see it, but I think I might see it now. Where did I get in my head this sense that we’re under some obligation to articulate what we feel when we experience art? No matter where it came from, the bigger question may be: why does it vex me still, this need to explain?

      Really, it seems we’re under no obligation but to just listen to the work, let it say to us what it will. If what it says is too much, too disquieting, we can leave it be. There’s a new day coming, full of new opportunities, new chance to see and be seen, to move and be moved.

      This sounds like hard-won wisdom, Tre. I hope I got you right, hope I did your wisdom justice through a true paraphrase.

      I hope you’re doing well, too, by the way. I read the letter you sent your Medium friends and felt lifted by your words. My best to you and Jernee.

      1. trE says:

        You got me right, Patrick, through and through. Funny you would mention the word, “poise”. I have a one-liner scheduled for tomorrow morning with the same title.

        Re: Medium. Everyone has been exceptionally loving and accepting. I couldn’t go another day without saying something. *big bugs* to all of you: you, your wife, and your dog.

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