"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Tears, Flapdoodle, And Artistic Sensibility–The Enduring Nature Of Genius

Maude Farris  was a very sensitive girl ever since she was a baby.  So sensitive in fact that the tiniest discomfort – a cool draft, a bubble of gas, a rumbling in her stomach – made her howl.  There was no end to her crying and no help from either grandmothers or doctors. “Colic”, they said, a catch-all phrase for babies that simply couldn’t stand being alive and out of the quiet comfort of their mother’s womb.

It was only after the fact that Maude’s parents concluded that it was her extraordinary sensitivity that was at the root of the problem.  The Princess and the Pea Syndrome they called it, a girl who was born with special receptors in her eyes, ears, body and brain; and that nothing – no light, sound, movement, casual look, or strange walk – escaped her.  She was an artist, an eye-painter, a brilliant assayer of color, line, and texture; a natural psychiatrist and film director. 

Image result for images the princess and the pea

Such sensitive brilliance, her parents decided, had to be behind her early discomfort.  What might be insignificant to other babies could not be dismissed or ignored by Maude.  As a girl and later young adult, her sensitivity only sharpened.  She missed nothing, was blind to nothing, and could ignore nothing. 

This natural ability – or talent – had its good and bad sides.  On the positive side, she had a remarkable career in fashion design. She understood what looked good on women, how fashion could both reflect popular culture and influence it, and most importantly how fashion could and should be considered great art in and of itself.

On the negative side, Maude never was able to ignore the noise and interference that came from her environment.  Things bothered her as much as they did as a child.  Not the simple disruptions of routine or intrusions of unwanted sound and light into her quiet world; but more adult concerns. 
She had a dramatic, theatrical response to poverty, inhumanity, environmental abuse, and corruption.   There was no way to overlook them, no possibility of shelving them for later consideration, no way but to face them for all the misery and pain they represented.

Of course her positive side acted as a counterfoil or even antidote for the reactions of her negative side.  There was nothing more elegiac than a Caravaggio painting, more spiritually moving than a Durer print, or more existential than a Kiefer tableau.  Works of art were more than representations of an artist’s vision or a reflection of the times in which he painted.  They were living, powerful, and still dynamic expressions of the best that life had to offer.

Image result for images caravaggio

Perhaps it was because of the times in which she lived – the hysterical, divisive, impossibly noisy, chaotic years of the 2010’s – or perhaps because of simple sensory overload on a system built for subtlety and refined sensibility but short-circuited by high-tension and random energy bursts; but she was tormented.

Not only was she upset and angered by what she saw and heard, she felt it necessary to speak out, to protest, to do something.

In fact her own beautiful, sensitive appreciation of the plight of the world, and her eloquent, heartfelt, and passionate outcries for pity, change, and reform were exactly what the progressive movement needed.

Maude, however, was far more intelligent, perceptive, and logical than the crowd which took her in as one of their own. Her reactions to injustice were emotional and artistic – she could not help seeing lowlife as a series of works by Goya, Hals, and Bruegel; the desperate need for religion and spirituality from the paintings of Giotto and the Medieval masters; and the search for individual reinvention in the triptychs of Bacon. 

Image result for images giotto

The reactions of her colleagues had no intellectual, spiritual, or philosophical foundation.  They were cries of  personal need.  Protesting racism, climate change, income inequality, and social justice was less of a reasoned, structured, and strategic move to real reform than a mantle of acceptance and belonging.

Hysteria, exaggeration, melodrama, and intemperance were far easier methods of expression than more considered approaches to issues and more rational proposals for reform.

‘Racism’ became a catch-all for every progressive grievance.  Black writers and journalists who saw everything through the lens of white male supremacy could not possibly reflect reasonably on history, the legacy of the Civil War, the crises between the Upper South and Lower South over manumission and the inevitable corrosive impact of freed slaves within white American society.  Out of such historical myopia could only come hyperbole.  These writers knew, of course, exactly what they were doing.  Temperance, thought, and rationally-derived insights did not sell books, gain television audiences, or lecture engagements.

Only tears and flapdoodle would do for climate change activists who settled science long before it was ever settled because it felt good to wail and be heard. 

There was nothing more thrilling and life-altering than to be among thousands on the Mall, protesting the glass ceiling, the destruction of the natural environment by rapacious capitalists and their Wall Street enablers; the persistent, insidious, and growing Nazi-like racism in America; and the retrograde influences of religious extremism.

Image result for images women's march on washington

It felt good to be there, to belong, to shout, and to have one’s voice become one of loving multitude.  It had nothing to do with the ends, nor even with the means, but only the performance.
It soon became clear to Maude that she had no place in this crowd.  Yet her feelings had not changed nor her sympathies.

There is a pre-revolutionary Russian tale about an idealistic young man who defies his father, rejects his wealth, social milieu, and professional support, and chooses to work with the peasants. He marries and convinces his wife, an educated, talented artist, to live with and among them.  The peasants soon take advantage of the young man, stealing from him, defying his orders and rules, and impoverishing the land.

The young man is not deterred.  He tries to understand the peasants, their milieu, and their meager aspirations, and overlooks their dishonesty as an expression of their unfortunate fate.  His wife in increasingly frustrated by her husband’s attempts to good and the right thing in the face of such callous indifference on the part of the peasants.

The young man and his wife quarrel about human nature, its imperfectability, and the moral choices that the privileged and well-educated have.  He chooses to honor his commitment to the peasants and stays.  He is eventually ruined and goes home, ashamed and beaten.

His wife goes to Moscow, for she feels that there is no purpose in social reform, and nothing but thanklessness and failure.  If one can express the better aspects of human nature rather than the base, insensible, plodding ignorance of the peasants, she would be serving both them, her class, and Russian society in general.

She leads a happy, fulfilled, and well-recognized life.

Years after Maude had moved from the world of Seventh Avenue, rented a loft in Brooklyn, and began to paint, she often retold this story – her story, in fact.

The world of protest, activism, and progressive compassion was no better than the world it was trying to reform.  There was enough egotism, arrogance, and supposition to go around on both sides.  Change was inevitable but neither qualitatively good or bad.  Social reformers may push the wheel in one direction, but time and historical forces will always push it back.

There were those who ignored the issue entirely – nihilists and spiritual renegades who chose only to withdraw and neglect – but Maude was different.  She, like the wife in the Russian story, never abandoned her sensibilities, concerns, or convictions; but saw that artistic creation was a far more potent, lasting, and insightful means of expression than any ordinary, necessarily insular, protest could ever possibly be.

Her Brooklyn loft was not a retreat but a place for reflection, interpretation, and creativity.  Whether or not her paintings every became as famous as those of Caravaggio was not the point.  It was withdrawing from a chaotic, divisive, and parochial world to one which at least had some hope of endurance if not meaning.

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