Last night I set up a DVD of No Country for Old Men to introduce that compelling Coen brothers’ film to my darling Jan. She said almost immediately that it wasn’t her kind of movie, I assured her that I knew that, asked her, once again, to watch it anyway, give it a try: she should know it, at least a little bit.
There’s lots to say about this movie, about the novel that set its pace, about the Yeats’ poem it references, about Coens, Hollywood, the stars, etc; I want to use it to talk about my biography in relation to discovering plastic arts in addition to audio arts.
I loved music, I was a fiend for jazz. My public school, when I was fifteen, herded us to a series of NYC museums, to harden our hearts against “art” I presume. I trampled the Frick, same as my fellows, maybe not quite that bad I hope, and was in the midst of marauding the Met, Vandals in Rome, when I noticed something:
The Met was as dark as a dungeon in 1952 or ’53. Life before electricity was lived indoors, in dark, people saw what they saw by indirect light, by feeble light, and by candle light, one candle if they were lucky: paintings were seen by torch, by hearth-smolder, by candle. That’s how the king saw it, the peasant didn’t see it at all. There in a dark corridor of the Met was a section, an alcove. I saw that paintings were hanging there. Till then I could see that that painting back there was a man on a horse, that painting over there was a woman with a mink, the one over there was a child held by its mother, the Christ child no doubt … But what the hell were these? Suddenly, I saw: a little. My mind, after a few seconds, constructed an image of a church, a cathedral.
Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral
One minute it was gray nothing, the next minute it was a cathedral front. It had taken my eye, my mind, my mind-eye, a few seconds to assemble the image. I’d made the image, the artist had led me to make the image, the artist had guided me how to make the image.
I didn’t know it yet, I wouldn’t know it for decades yet, wouldn’t really know it till I sketched Macroinformation in 1999 (having first glimpsed it semiotically in the mid-1960s), but I’d taken a definite step toward “understanding” art, intellect, information, the mind.
The school dragged us to the Frick, then the Met. The school had offered us the option of going on to the Museum of Modern Art if we wished. The wrinkle was that the bus would return to Long Island once it had dropped the volunteers at MOMA.
These volunteers had to have a note from home assuring the school fascists that we understood we had to find our own way back to Rockville Centre, there would be no return bus for the explorers, the school was not responsible for feeding us, protecting us, changing our diaper.
Man, are you kidding? thought this fifteen year old skinny twerp with freckles and big sticking-out ears: the Pres! Lester Young!
is playing at Birdland.
This will give me the first chance of my unfledged life to see one of the great geniuses of jazz, in the cathedral of jazz: Birdland! named for Bird! Charlie Parker!!!
Bird, the Yardbird, Charlie Parker
& Dizzy Gillespie
Sure I’d go to MOMA, find my own way home: way after midnight: subway and LIRR to myself. Damn right.
I didn’t want to go to MOMA; I hadn’t wanted to go to the Met, or the Frick. I hadn’t wanted to go to school. What say does “a Jew” have to say about where “the Nazis” put him? A Jew, or a queer, or a gypsy? Or a real human being? !
But: the bus dropped its little load of special exceptions at MOMA, oh, say three in the afternoon. Birdland wouldn’t open till 9 PM. What was I going to do between 3 and 9? Well, I might as well look at some modern art! I’d still have hours and hours left to walk from 53rd and 5th to Broadway and 52nd, find something to eat, etc.
OK? I already knew the Pres, the Bird, the Diz; now I’d actually see them, hear them up close. Glory, glory.
I was fed up with the Frick and the Met before we got there.
But then I saw the Monet! the Monet bored me, then grabbed me. I’ve never seen a Monet since that didn’t make me stop, and remember.
Well, I walked into MOMA: and didn’t know which way to go. There was a special exhibit downstairs: Brancusi. I saw his Chief.
and burst out laughing.
Several years later I’d tell Professor Dustin Rice about laughing at paintings, sculpture: and he told of a friend who’d walk through the museums, roaring, while others clucked, without understanding: different species: the art made them genuflect, go silent; not dance, not laugh.
I would genuflect, and laugh, and dance, and sing …
Anyway, there I am, head over heels in love with Brancusi: but then I visited the museum proper, ascended the stairs, saw modern clocks, a Calder mobile hanging and moving and banging and clanging in the stairwell …
The Trolley, he called it.
Next thing I know I’m walking among paintings, and other sculptures. I knew and loved some Michelangelo, some VanGogh before age fifteen; but here I was seeing lots of things for the first time: Braque, Matisse … Jacques Lipchitz sculpture. One was called “Woman.” I stood and puzzled. Yeah, there’s a sort of a “breast,” there’s something like “hair” … and in my mind I was right back with the Monets, needing a minute to “see” it. But once you see it, then you don’t need a minute, you see it, always, right away.
And so on till I stood in front of Pavel Tchelichew’s Hide & Seek:
Again, I didn’t know what the hell I was looking at, then I saw part of it: a tree, a girl, branches / fingers … Then I saw more of it: babies! And I was reminded of comic books that offered puzzle pages: How many birds can you find in this picture: answers at bottom of page, upside down (or on some other page). I got very good and finding the hidden “birds”: nearly all, then faster, sometimes all, sometimes slower.
So Jan says right away: she doesn’t understand No Country for Old Men. “Stop talking, stop thinking, stop looking at me,” I wanted to say; “look at the movie, be patient, let it feed the information to you, bits, and pieces, then whole tapestries of bits and pieces …” If you don’t see the image, the whole image, by the end, or not too long after a few minutes for digestion, then it was probably a bad movie.
Now: am I saying that art is like a puzzle? No. I am saying that art may sometimes be like a puzzle. Always, there’s something to digest, to interpret, but first just to take in. I look at the Sudoku puzzle for a few seconds, a few minutes. I’ll see a missing number, then another, then a possibility for a missing number: knowing that if I have one wrong, the rest will be pushed toward wrongness: you always have to allow for your fallibility, maybe start over: make a copy of the original information before scribbling all over. Anyway, when the blank starts to fill in, or, when you see that you’d better be doubly sure, it might be a trap, a trick, might not be as obvious as it appeared a moment ago … like cops proving that the chink in Hoboken murdered the Aryan in Yorkville while the chink was in Poughkeepsie. Anyway, once done, it’s a pleasure.
With Sudoku, it’s a pleasure for a half a second: then you’re done with it, bored by it, how could it have presumed on you?
But once you digest the Chekov, or the Tolstoy, or the Melville, or the Thackeray, or the George Eliot … then by golly everything in your life before the Tolstoy was a toy, a trifle, a waste of your time and intellect.
Art that you work for is a special joy. Not all art has to be worked for. Don’t devalue either end of the spectrum.
My friend Anton loved me as I loved him, he’d praise me to the sky: when the FBI was arresting me in 2006, rewriting my document and submitting the forgery to the courts, I’d stay breathing by remembering some of Anton’s hymns. But sometimes he’d dismiss me, brush me off. One time he told me that my love for the Tchelichew Hide & Seek proved my bad taste!
I’m still laughing at that one.