Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Beckmann, Nauman, Van Zandt

In an undergraduate creative writing class, at the encouragement of a visiting writer, I sorted through a pile of art postcards and chose the painting below, Max Beckmann's "Self-Portrait in a Tuxedo" (1917). The idea was to select a painting that best reflected what we admired in our own poems, then talk about it.

Then, I liked that I wrote elegant, formal, imposing, and inscrutable poems (with very large hands), though I probably said something in the class about negative capability and the nothing that was not there in my poems. The point, I thought, was not so much to speak honestly about creative process or outcome, but rather to seem very smart and thoughtful, with the secondary benefit of impressing anyone. Then, I wanted to be a poet, at least as much as I wanted to write poems, and poets seemed to intimidate other poets. What is still vivid for me is how well I remember liking that painting. I tacked it to the wall of my hostel room in Bangladesh, and then again on the wall of Katie and I's first apartment in Chicago, over the desk where I tried to write before and after my middle school teaching day.

During my senior year of college, I liked to ride the el downtown to the Chicago Art Institute and wander through the galleries, often during campus events, especially sports. I was studying history, and earning a teaching certificate, so I had no training in visual aesthetics or creative practice. My taste tended to run to extremes of convention and innovation; what I could either seem to get my mind around or fully misunderstand. This attitude had the ironic effect of making my biases more concrete, and limiting my sense of curiosity about a world that seemed so interrelated with poetry, or so it went until the afternoon I watched Bruce Nauman's "Clown Torture" installation.

What is going on here? I remember thinking, as Nauman, on televisions, sat on a toilet, told irritating children's jokes, performed simple clown tricks, and held up a goldfish bowl, all while some other person, off-screen, yelled variations on "No!" If my mind wanted to wander into parody mode, then it also seemed to find no ironic distance from which to express my own skepticism. Nauman's work was all removal and distance. Watching it (experiencing it? witnessing it?) had the effect of making my attitudes about art feel not only small, but particularly vulnerable, as though Nauman had both anticipated the limit of my rationale feeling about the work, and also triggered a strong emotional reaction; one maybe even stronger than the great rooms of still life and sculpture one floor up. Nauman's "NOOO!" still instantly conjures my twenty-something self, standing in a gallery, rubbing my chin, silly hat and all; desperately trying to osmose some understanding of art, imagining I had some fresh perspective--some superiority--by which I might instantly make sense of the world around me. He seemed to have my number: all ethos; very little understanding.

At the very end of that year, a friend, maybe the best writer in our workshop, explained over a game of Trivial Pursuit that he was not going to keep writing poems. He had written his senior thesis about Robert Frost, and decided that American poets were too unhappy a lot, too eager for tragedy and suffering, too narcissistic and self-satisfied. He held out as an example of this useless pettiness Lowell's unattributed takedown of Robert Frost, that a "mutual friend" had said, "It's sad to see Frost storming about the country when he might have been an honest schoolteacher." Better, my friend sad said, to make money and enjoy our short lives. My friend was the first person I knew who liked Townes Van Zandt, the "real poet," he liked to say. I admired my friend's certainty, and his willingness to walk away from poetry. I saw my inability to do the same as a specific weakness of pride, a foolish unwillingness to cut my losses, and whatever it meant for our friendship, it was enough to see me through one stretch of uncertainty.

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