Note: this post is almost two months late. It has been sitting here gathering dust until today when I fished it out, dusted it off, and decided to share it.
I just had a lovely and enlightening trip to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe. Not only do I love O’Keeffe’s art far more than I thought I did, I’ve had a minor revelation. First off, the woman CAPTURED Santa Fe. Everything I’ve felt about the endless, haunting desert landscape here—its expansive melancholy, its arid beauty, its purple dusks and violent landforms (and even the snow as it falls quietly on a graveyard as we leave; God I miss the snow) is evoked perfectly in her work. Here’s one of my personal favorites, called “Antelope”:
Something about being in the museum led me to think on the fact that everyone seems to suppose that artists are far more complex than most folk. More labyrinthine, mercurial, nuanced, mysterious.
I would like to propose that artists are in fact far simpler. If we imagine for a moment that the world is full of both crap and beauty—and sometimes beautiful crap—and that we all, like it or not, respond to it, we can also suppose that there is a mechanism that does this responding. In 100 years I have no doubt that we will know exactly which neurological chemical is secreted when we observe some of this beautiful crap and ache to make sense of it via a timeless work of art. But for now we’ll teeter on the edge of mystery and say what we do know, which is that everyone makes sense of it somehow.
I picture these little mechanisms operating as follows: they work furiously to put the overwhelming amount of stimuli which we observe daily into boxes in our heads, so that we can avoid going crazy—an admirable pursuit. Let’s call the mechanisms the Beauty/Crap-Centrifuges. We people observe both the beauty and the crap, then deposit it into these centrifuges, our plucky internal filtering systems. The centrifuges work madly to place what we have seen into manageable boxes, kind of like librarians or archivists. This is a complex procedure and takes enormous vitality and fortitude, even in the blandest of us. But can you imagine if we did not do this? The overload? We would explode. The world is far too much of a frontier on so many levels for us to begin to take it all in without the aid of our Centrifuges.
The reason I suggest that artists are far simpler is that while many of us work to keep the beautiful crap tucked away in corners and back alleys, our Beauty/Crap Centrifuges humming to keep things clutter-free, artists seem to be missing some part of this process. The Centrifuges clunk and groan lazily, but do not really want to work. The beautiful crap enters, but the artist has little desire to shape and alter it before regurgitating it in the way they need to to make sense of this beautiful, crappy world. The whole process is far cleaner and clearer and simpler than people imagine. Stuff goes in, and because the artist has taught him or herself to look, they may also have developed the technical skillset to put the beautiful crap down in an aesthetically pleasing way. But, to me, there’s nothing very complicated about that; the actual rendering of art is just a science (trust me, I taught art to kids for years.) The real difference is the artist’s desire to feel what the world evokes, pain and all.
So, yeah….artists are simpletons. Hmmm, this is feeling less and less revelatory.
I will also add that this lovely philosophical conclusion is brought to you on two nights of inadequate sleep and last night’s dose of Benadryl, which never does much to make me lucid. I just couldn’t help thinking it after seeing how O’Keefe took in the landscape, dropped it into her Beauty-Centrifuge, and how it came back out again much the way it came in. She was just there, painting what she saw and loved, and it doesn’t get much simpler than that.
***Note: Also want to add, upon reflection, that I don’t believe the world is cleanly divided into “artists” and “not artists.” That would be elitist. I just think some people are more willing to let things in, but anyone can develop this capacity. (I add this because I really don’t like artistic snobbery, and didn’t want to advocate it here.)