Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Thoughts on Details from Monet's Waterlilies

Here are some photos I took a few years ago of Monet's Waterlilies at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"Art still has truth, take refuge there." -- Matthew Arnold

 "We have art in order that we might not perish from truth -- Nietzche.

I've never been happy with either of these opposing quotes. Art is a concoction, at times it is smoke and mirrors, a trick. It is not Truth either morally or objectively. But then, we serve ourselves very poorly if we treat art as a "refuge," still less as a palliative for "truth" as Nietzche would have us do.

 Monet painted this large picture of the sky reflected in the surface of the lily pad pond on his estate at Giverny very late in his life. He began working on it in 1914, and only finished it in 1926, just a year before he died. Impressionism as a movement was long over by this time. So much of early 20th century art was already over by 1926; Cubism, Futurism, the first abstract works, even much of Dada. It's a little startling to realize how late this painting is. By this point in Monet's life, the colors are no longer anchored in direct observation, but become symbolic. What he is trying to do is to recapture not just what clouds reflected on the shimmering surface of water really look like, but to reconstruct the experience and especially why so simple a thing should be so hypnotic and engrossing.

Monet's painting is not a path out of experience, but as a way of entering back into it so much more fully. Watching the ripples of light on water has never been the same for anyone since Monet did his work.
That's what all art at its best does for us, and why for anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 years human beings expended so much time and energy making and looking at something that is entirely useless for survival. No matter what kind, abstract or "realistic," religious or materialistic, spiritual or prosaic, serious or silly, objective or imaginative, art is a way of looking at and thinking about life, and of entering back into it more fully. Art at its best shows us new ways of contemplating and participating in our life in the world in all its fullness.

This is why I resist all these efforts to use art as some kind of "escape" or break from politics. Art is many things, but it is not a palliative.

In the end, my favorite quote about art is from Picasso:
"Art is a lie that tells the truth."

Politics has become an urgent issue these days, and naturally pre-occupies a lot of people including yours truly.  I want to continue to do what I've always done with this blog, think out loud about where all these various aspects of life intersect and how artists articulate them.  Far from being a relief from politics, at times when liberty is threatened and "the terrible simplifiers" are on the march, nothing could be more acutely political than to decide for oneself what to hang on a wall and look at.
Politics have always played a large role in this blog, and I insist that the art essays, the religious essays, and the political entries are all of a piece.  This is one of those moments when history pokes its finger through the page and says, "This is here, and now."

Posting has been light because I've been busy, or I've been ill.  I have a post or two that I've been working on for awhile and hope to publish soon.  I still have the rest of my last trip to Europe to process.

Stay tuned.