What We Want From Art

Claude Monet, White Frost Sunrise, 1889

I’ve always loved art. When I was a child, my parents dragged me to museums across the country; at first, I was resentful, but then it became a regular habit in my life, like eating at least once a day, or sleeping when the clock allows. So while I was in Chicago last weekend, nothing stood against the opportunity to return to the Art Institute. I would go to bed early and wake up bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to spend a lifetime among Japanese fan designs, a collection on Dionysus, the cautionary images of Ivan Albright, Monet’s haystacks and Mondrian’s lines forming squares.

Meandering in and out of rooms at the Art Institute, my eyes jumped from painting to painting. I was transfixed by the essence of certain pieces—not so much the content, but what it meant. Something about the museum calmed me; I lived in this blurred region of my brain where I wasn’t perfectly conscious of my consciousness, submerged in the experience of experiencing.

For a long time, I didn’t know why I loved art, or why I craved it. I tracked some of the appeal to escapism. Growing up in a town that I learned to hate, I constantly sought a new place to go, either in body or imagination. Art let me dive into a time and place different from my own. I could visit the bawdy brothels and dance halls frequented by Toulouse-Lautrec, or go back to the Byzantine era and meet Justinian’s wife, Theodora. Adventure lay in every piece of glass tucked inside a mosaic or brushstroke on a canvas. I so desperately wanted to fly away to faraway worlds, to discover new spaces and faces; art let me do that.

But in the past few years, art has become almost the opposite of escapism for me. When I moved to New York City, I started writing about dance and theater regularly, attending a show every few weeks. After a year, I stopped, and for about three months I rarely made my way to auditoriums or black boxes. And I was sad, always sad. I felt like something was missing, and when I decided to review again, it was like I had found myself in every performance, every line of a play or arch of a dance move.

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Piet Mondrian, Composition C, 1935

I finally realized why art means so much to me after visiting the Art Institute. It seems obvious now, but I’ll share my personal revelation anyway:

Art says what I can’t. The irony of my life is that I’m a writer, but I’m very bad at expressing myself. In conversation, and especially with people I don’t know well, I get nervous. If I don’t know how to speak their language yet, I don’t speak a language at all, falling into exasperated tongue-ties as I try to say something—anything—of meaning. On an unintimidating page, however, I can’t always capture the moment perfectly, just as I want it.

But language can only convey so much. I don’t know how to talk about when the auburn leaves whirled from the concrete, spiraling upward to the sky, and how stunning they were, but also how they made me sad because they reminded me that everything is ephemeral and the world will never be the same as it was in that second. Monet could have shown that, the leaves swirling. He could have made them hopeful and tragic at the same time, playing with light until the scene was just right and everyone could see what I saw.

This is the power of art, and why it’s so important to me. Both the visual and performing arts know what to say, and how to say it, usually without saying anything at all. They defy the manmade confines of language to really look at the world, as it is, and express a thousand feelings in one simple gesture. Art speaks for me when I’m at a loss for words.

I think that’s why artists create, too. It’s funny, looking at changes in art and the historical events that might drive them. For example, the return to order after World War I: painters wanted to make sense of the chaos they had witnessed, some at the front, others at home. Maybe they didn’t know how to talk about the destruction—mangled bodies and ruined lives—but it’s all there, in the classicist allusions, in the stark, lucid lines. We can read books like Mrs. Dalloway to gage the effects of World War I, and that’s all right, but really it’s much more productive to look at a few of these tableaus. It’s all there, hidden in the subtext of the superficial.

This is what we want from art: an immediate method of communication that doesn’t have to obey the cold regulations of language. Something visceral. Something ugly and beautiful. Something improper. Something cruel and comforting. Something like the thoughts we can’t express—the “us” below the surface.