It’s difficult to believe that it’s been over a month since I posted the first part of this piece. In the interim I’ve dealt with mom’s broken hip and a week in London, among other things. None of that is really an excuse, except to say that I’ve been crazy busy. Oh well. Back at it.
James Turrell often talks about his work in the context of Plato’s parable about the cave. I’m sure you know that one. Those kept prisoner in the cave can only see the shadows of what’s outside in the real world. They think that the shadows ARE the real world, not knowing that there is a larger, more vivid, much more complex world outside their cave. They don’t know that because their concept of the world is shaped only by what they perceive. Personally, I hate that parable; not because of what it says about sense perception but because Plato uses it to describe his notion of underlying forms and I’m SO not into Platonism.
But, I have to say that when Turrell uses the parable to explain the concept that we are living in a place far more wondrous than what we actually perceive, I get it. Personally, I draw a hard-line when the implication is that we live “in a reality that our mind creates” because that leads down a subjectivist rat hole that has historically led (IMHO) down a very scary path. I refuse to believe that we create our own reality: reality is not a social construct or a linguistic construct or a perceptual construct. Reality is reality. Existence exists. That is my belief system and I’m sticking to it.
Now, the part of the equation that I DO buy into wholeheartedly it the idea that what we commonly consider the totality of reality is subject to the sensory limitations of our perceptual apparatus. To me, the profound power of Turrell’s work is that he forces us to confront the perceptual and cognitive limitations and to look deeply. I don’t want to burden that thought with New Age pseudo-spiritual fluff. Feel free to do that yourself. But, I see this work in a more objective way,
You see, I feel that awareness of subtlety and attention to detail are tools for cognitive tuning, living as fully as possible in the world, creative success, and the ability to maximally experience joy, beauty, and wonder. And, the more joy, beauty, and wonder we are able to glean from our experience of the world the more fulfilled we can be as individuals. Turrell’s work, by encouraging us to look more deeply than typically possible, makes us more aware, makes our experience more nuanced, and positions us to have a deeper, more fulfilling life.
That’s a pretty bold statement and, just to be clear, it came from me not from Jim. I’m not sure he’d describe his work the way I do; but I’m sure he’d approve of my assessment. And… It’s my assessment that leads me to the aesthetic value I see in his work.
Although teleology is something that much of 20th and 21st century art has forsaken, I still believe in the old notions of direction and purpose. I know, I’m old-fashioned. In many cases, artists have “purposes” with which I disagree. I’m okay with that. What I’m not okay with is intellectual activity that is purposeless. If you make violent art to sensitize the viewer to the horrors of violence, I may not like it, but I’ll respect it. Conversely, if you make violent art just for the sake of violence, I’ll look you in the eye and call it valueless. The point is that art have a purpose.
My own belief is that the value of art comes when that purpose is, in one way or another, directed toward making we humans better for having experienced it. In the case of my friend Michael Newberry, the purpose of his work is to make us see the greatness we can achieve and the capacity we have for joy. I love his work because it has that purpose. At the diametrically opposite extreme, consider Alain Resnais’ film “Night and Fog”. The purpose if the file is to make us see the utter depths of depravity we can fall to when a nationalistic genocidal machine is allowed to grow from a history of antisemitism and the capacity the Nazis had for bestiality. I love that film, although I can probably never watch it a second time, because it has a purpose. The purpose is painful, horrifying, and tragic. But it strives to make us better by making us wary of the depths to which we can fall. Terrifying as it may be, we are changed by watching it; hopefully made just a bit more empathetic and compassionate.
But what about Turrell?
Okay. That brings me to the aesthetics of nuance. The work of James Turrell makes us better human beings because it makes us pay attention to subtlety. By experiencing Turrell’s work we wrestle with perception, we experience surprise, we watch, we wait, we look, and we see. In each case, we exercise our cognition and we tune our senses. We stand in a museum looking at a hole in a wall and some fluorescent tubes. Big deal, you say. Damn right it’s a big deal. Because, if you give yourself time to experience that light, to let it work it’s magic on your visual cortex, to become sensitive to its subtlety, you may just walk out of that museum and notice a flower you’d otherwise have missed, see a sunset you might have otherwise been too busy driving past, hear a bird you might not have noticed, smell the aroma of the bread at the bakery you walk past, touch a stone whose texture you may have missed, experience a smile that might have gone unnoticed, feel just a bit more intensity in that night’s orgasm, LIVE just a bit more fully than you lived before…
…Just maybe… the world will seem a little bit more blessed with wonder.
That’s an aesthetic worth experiencing.