Finding Religion

Doris and I went to the Guggenheim Museum to see the Kandinksky exhibit before it closed. I used the free headsets to listen to a guided tour of the Guggenheim. The narration provided context for the exhibition, as well as insight into specific paintings. Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s journey came up more than once in talking about the artist and his life’s work.

I appreciate Joseph Campbell’s theories, but am sometimes uncomfortable when his ideas are applied by others. I’m not sure what it is but when I listen to Campbell speak (on dvd) I am right there with him. But whenever I hear him quoted by other people, I balk. Although Campbell’s ideas were profound, he was very specific about what he was saying. When extrapolating his ideas there is the danger of implying more than what he intended and more than what is reasonable.

For example, the suggestion seems to be with artists, and especially abstract artists, that there was a unifying theme to their lives. The implication is that the early work of artists somehow lead up to the later work, which depends on the assumption that Kandinsky and other artists lead continuous, fully-integrated lives that moved in one direction. We assume so much about the relationship between cause and effect.

The only constant I could readily (and definitely) see was that Kandinsky liked to put lots of bright colors in each painting. Whether it was a crowd scene, geometric designs, or pure abstraction, his bright, distinctive colors fill the canvas. Even across the rotunda of the Guggenheim, the colors in his paintings were vibrant. In fact, some of the paintings were most pleasing when viewed from a distance where form lost importance because details were not visible.

Maybe there was an intention set by Kandinsky early in his career that was then later “achieved”. But is this then the ideal type of life, one with moments that can be threaded together to make an intelligible and meaningful pattern leading up to a grand achievement such as a non-objective painting?

I consider my own life, which feels fragmented and disjunctive. Patterns emerge and disintegrate depending on mood. Identity is subject to changes in perspective. Am I progressing toward some achievement? Does the goal determine my path or has the path determined the goal? Is my agenda merely an optical illusion? How far is my own life from the ideal exemplified by the artist’s life as portrayed in the museum?

About half way up the spiral climb Doris and I encountered the sculpture Memory by Anish Kapoor. I was surprised that the material was metal. From the picture I had seen I’d thought it was more organic, like wood or leather. But it is rust covered steel.
We saw the first view of Memory from behind ropes. I could only see one corner of the large oblong shape, but visible in the distance was another room where people were looking at the other side of the figure. A sign told us to go left to the second gallery for another view.

We took a wrong turn and walked up the stairs to the next level. So we had to walk back down among crowds of people. This was not going to be easy. I recalled from early museum trips how this level of the Guggenheim was arranged and guessed the way to the other gallery. We practically ran through the crowds in the main gallery on our “quest” to see the other side.

We were stopped in our tracks by a black painting hanging on a white wall. Doris and I approached cautiously, not sure if this was part of the same sculpture or something else. The black square wasn’t really a painting at all, it was a section cut out of the wall to reveal the interior of the oblong figure. Memory has more than two sides. This was the void. It was as frightening as it was delightful. I checked to see if there was glass covering the opening. There was not. There was nothing to keep one from being swallowed up.

I don’t know how long we stood there, peering into the blackness. Then we walked around to the next gallery for the third view, wiser because of our journey.

Every time I visit the Guggenheim I leave thinking I’ve found my church. This church allows me to ask questions. In fact, this church demands it. In return, I’m not burdened with answers.

2 comments to Finding Religion

  • Luis Valadez

    Of course, my man, there is the “meaning” paradox to juxtapose in these musings. We tend to jump to extremes when we either ascribe meaning to something or label it as “random.” We’re never too keen on examining the steps before the walk through the door or fall down the stairs. Human existence really isn’t all that unique from person to person and is generally only rendered as such by its representation in art. And, of course, everything I’ve ever done has lead up to everything I am now and that’s good, so I shouldn’t regret any thing (not even stealing or beating people up), right? And, if I hadn’t set those fires, I wouldn’t be the artist that I am today with a book published by a university press, so that’s cool too, right? Why do you even question a linear existence, McDaniel? You must be UnAmerican or somethin’!

  • Jason

    I propose that the assumed relationship between cause and effect, that is the axiom that cause must always proceed effect is arbitrary, just as is every other axiom. Our assumptions about the linearity of existence comes to us disguised as cause and effect.

    What if the heartbreak of our youth is necessary preparation for our adult life as writers? The poem we write today is the very thing that causes the heartbreak of our youth. The two experiences of heartbreak and writing poetry do not occur as separate points on a timeline but are both in the present, as life is only lived in the present. We can imagine these experiences as separate points on a timeline and establish rules of grammar for how the names Past, Present, and Future should be shared between the points. But no matter how functional our grammar, we are only imagining that a timeline exists and that the points are separate.