YoungDoo Moon/via Flickr
Museum goers sit before a Barnett Newman painting at MoMA in New York.
YoungDoo Moon/via Flickr
The soul of the Abstract Expressionism exhibition that’s now up at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is the Barnett Newman room. Newman’s paintings seem new; they are startling and they command attention, and perhaps something like reverence. Even the noisy, shopping-bag carrying travelers, who make MoMA sometimes feel like an airport shopping terminal, were silenced in the face of these spiritual objects. Or perhaps what was altered was my perception of the presence of those around me.
Many of the works now on display at MoMA were first shown in 1950 at the Betty Parsons Gallery. Apparently Newman had then posted a note on the wall of the gallery instructing visitors to view the works from up close; he warned against standing too far back.
This surprised and intrigued me.
In our daily lives, we continuously adjust ourselves in relation to what is around us. We vary our distance from text to bring it into focus, and we move our heads and bodies the better to see where things are or what is happening. What is remarkable is that, for the most part, we do all this automatically, unthinkingly. We act spontaneously to keep the world in focus. We move forward, toward. We move back. We peer and squint and draw near. These skillful ways of grappling with the world give expression to motivations and ways of thinking that are otherwise mute.
It’s the most natural thing in the world to enter a room and then step back from a large picture on the wall, seeking to take up the optimal vantage point on it, just as we would if we were trying to take in, say, a friend’s outfit. Whatever his intentions may have been, Newman, in admonishing us to resist our natural tendency spontaneously to respond to what there is around us by, in this case, moving back so as to get a better overview of the scene, is inviting us to violate our habits as lookers and thinkers, to confound our unconsidered motivations.
Now, it isn’t possible to alter our basic perceptual motivations and ways of thinking. But it is possible to alert us to their existence. Perhaps Newman believed, as I do, that one of art’s (many!) tasks is to afford us just this sort of opportunity to catch ourselves in the act of encountering the world. In this way, art lets us encounter ourselves in a way that we otherwise never can.
This idea of unchosen, unreflected-on motivations and ways of thinking came up in the news recently, but in a rather different context:
“I really thought that it would just go away — when I say 'it,' I mean the way that I think, the way that I am motivated.”
This was Jim Swilley, the bishop of a large church near Atlanta, talking to NPR host Guy Raz. He was talking about his sexual orientation.
“The way that I think, the way that I am motivated.”
That’s about as good a gloss on what it is to have a sexual orientation as it is possible to get.
What’s beautiful about this formula is that it indicates that what is at stake in sexual orientation is a way of being, rather than, say, a way of acting.
It also brings out the basic poverty of the category of “sexual orientation.”
Think of all the different ways we might make a taxonomy of “ways of thinking, ways of being motivated!” What is personality but pattern or structure in ways of thinking and ways of being motivated?
That’s a topic for another day. The item I want to bring to our attention now is a point of intersection between Barnett Newman’s work and Swilley’s remarks about sexual orientation. Newman said: don’t step back! Don’t follow your spontaneous impulse to distance yourself from the painting! Swilley, or his parents, or his community at large, posted something analogous on the wall: don’t let your thoughts have free rein; don’t let your interest guide your attention.
The homophobes around Swilley made a gesture similar to that of Barnett Newman’s: deny your impulse!
But with such different import! For Newman, the admonishment to stay close and look! was emancipatory. By saying no! don’t!, he was really saying, discover yourself!, discover your what you are! Swilley’s persecutors — his community at large — presented him and now us with a very different and truly disgusting idea: Pretend you are not what you are! Cripple yourself! Deny your motivations and ways of thinking!
I don’t mean to suggest that art aims at emancipation and realization whereas religion aims at something less positive. I’m not interested in criticizing religion — not here, not now — and I’m not interested in criticizing Bishop Swilley, whose recent actions are intelligent, cogent and without any question, courageous.
At the end of the day, Swilley’s actions deserve our attention not because of their religious or political or moral implications. And certainly not because of anything to do with Swilley personally. But because Swilley, like Newman, offers us art.
I don’t mean the obvious, that his coming-out event at the church was choreographed, stage-managed and telecast. That it was. Swilley strode the stage wearing his Madonna-style microphone as a performer; he regaled his audience with schtick. No, the art had to do with the fact that in telling his story — and man, did he tell it, in gory detail — he offered his audience the chance to catch themselves in the act of responding to him, and to the kinds of issues he was raising, just as Newman allowed us to catch ourselves in the act of reacting to his paintings. Everyone in that church had to wonder: what is going on, really? What is at stake, really?
And that’s an art moment.
Newman, a wonderful and inspirational artist, turned the busy gallery at MoMA into a chapel, a place for spiritual discovery. Swilley, a likeable if rather sad preacher, turned his church into a theater. Both of these men, in different ways, and for different reasons, give us an opportunity to learn about ourselves.