When I was in Paris, I spent an inordinate amount of time at the Musee d’Orsay. It is a fabulous museum. Unlike the Louvre, which stuffs more art than anyone can appreciate in a month into a magnificent building turned into a Rococo warehouse, the Musee d’Orsay has just enough art that every room, every painting, nearly every detail, can be appreciated and savored. And because the museum is such a masterpiece, the defects of the paintings become all the more apparent.
Musee d’Orsay is known above all for its collection of Impressionists, and the whole experience of it was oddly dispiriting. Other people see in impressionists the height of refinement and pleasure, I saw a vast spiritual emptiness and decadence. I had to kick myself not to get depressed in there. What the hell was the point of all that jaw-dropping innovation when it is connected to so little and louche meaning. Far better, for me at least , is the work of a generation or two earlier: Delacroix, Turner, Friedrich, and especially Goya. For me, Romantic art was the height of visual art. Michelangelo might be the greatest of all artists, Rembrandt might the greatest of all painters. But the lessons of Michelangelo and Rembrandt were most fully absorbed by generations yet to come who could absorb their techniques and add still more wondrous ones to their vocabulary. Artists like them, and so many other immortals, taught us that it’s not enough to focus on eternal matters like the great religious masters, we have to ask eternal questions. The greatest art approaches eternal questions from a position of doubt, because without the risk of emptiness and despair, what is gained? If you simply bask in affirmative answers, life is solved and there is no need for art because we are robots serving at the pleasure of a higher being or purpose. If we feel no need for answers, then there is no reason to live or die, and we are just empty vassals, alone in the world and utterly free to exploit it or be exploited without need for judgement.
To me, the truth is not revealed, it is built - stone by stone, link by link. We live in the tension between these two forces - life and death, being and nothingness. In all likelihood, we are neither eternally alive nor are we shadows on a wall. We have so little idea of what we are that we can only gain self-knowledge and security by constantly wrestling with those questions in the hope that we can eventually become all we can be.
And this is why the louche animation behind Cezanne, Monet, Manet, Gauguin, Sisley, Pissarro, and especially Renoir, is so dispiriting. They portray a kind of Norman Rockwell version of French life - idealized, prettified, without substance or meaning. It is like looking into nothingness - into a world where we are only a bundle of wiring to be stimulated - vegetables to grow in a garden and harvested for our pleasure nerves. It takes all the innovations already present in Turner and Delacroix, and divorces them from life’s urgency - an urgency and spiritual seeking that is only rediscovered later in Van Gogh, Toulouse-Latrec, and Rousseau. I’d like to think I love pleasure as much as the next person, but I refuse to believe that life is so empty as Cezanne makes it seem. And if it is, I’d rather live with the lie that there can be a meaning to it.
Or at least that was the case until Tuesday, when I had an encounter with Impressionism’s other great museum - The Chicago Institute of Art. Perhaps it’s because I loved Chicago so much more than Paris, but my impression of impressionism (...) changed yet again from resentfulness to love. And it’s all due to their most famous painting (along with American Gothic…), Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat.
Occasionally we all see gigantic works of art so overwhelming that you can’t escape them. You gasp, you want to look away, yet you absolutely can’t. This is the impression you get from Michelangelo’s David at the Florentine Academy, or Picasso’s Demoisselles d’Avignon at the Modern Museum of Art in New York, or walking through Jerusalem’s Old City or in the courtyard of St. Mark’s Square in Venice, or standing underneath the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, or driving a few miles from the Manhattan Skyline. It’s an absolute experience of the kind that can’t help change your idea of your place in the world.
What separates Sunday on La Grande Jatte from other Impressionist paintings (aside from the fact that it’s technically ‘pointillist’) is not it’s size but it’s diversity. When you see most impressionist paintings, with their singular subjects, you can be forgiven for thinking that they have no inner thoughts except for various kinds of post-coital satiation. There is precious little unhappiness and still less conflict. But when you see Sunday, such an interpretation simply can’t do it justice. These are not people who are happy, these are people doing their best to pursue happiness as they see fit, with a possibility of failure. Every person in the painting has his own potential backstory, with as much comedy and tragedy as your imagination can allow. And to add to all that is the amazing detail of every dot, which places us at a degree remove from the action and cements the idea that it’s as much a work of imagination as a work about real people. And because the the point of this painting seems so different from so many others contemporary with it, it puts all those other paintings in new perspective. Suddenly, these other paintings seem to have a human perspective that isn’t so flat - pursuing pleasure rather than experiencing it, trying as best they can to seem happy but perhaps never getting there. Even still lifes, which bored me to tears for years, seem much easier to understand in light of this 'revelation.'
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Stephen Sondheim, one of the few practitioners of any artform that can equal or supercede Seurat, released Sunday in the Park with George on the theatrical public in 1984. During the Golden Age of non-cable color TV, the pixelation of non-cable TV is precisely the same as the pixelation of pointilism. Seurat was perfect painter for the Age of Television, just as Van Gogh, with his massive three-dimensional paint smears, may prove one day the perfect painter for the Age of Virtual Reality.
There are some artists who are simply perfect. No one will consider Bach or Mozart, Raphael or Monet, Tolstoy (the novelist) or Chekhov, Hitchcock or Ozu, Sondheim or Mamet, Seinfeld or Mad Men, to be artists whose reach exceeds their grasp. Their technique is so secure that their grasp always meets everything they reach for, and if they have limitations, it becomes that their awe-inspiring craft can never be taken to a place past the splendid rooms to which technique allows them to record every detail like a stenographer. There is always a finite point in their work, always a desire to conceal as much as they reveal. The work seems so effortless because there seems no struggle for something more infinite than what they already have. There are artists whose technique was so utterly secure that they show us precisely what their technique allows us all to see.
But then there are artists who seem to reach beyond perfection to infinity: Beethoven or Mahler, Michelangelo or Goya, Proust or Bellow, Welles or Renoir, Shakespeare or Ibsen, The Sopranos or The Simpsons, these are artists too concerned with eternity to limit themselves to perfection. Inevitably, there are terrible dry spots, but who cares? The dry spots are there because they risk everything on every throw, and every time they’re successful, the way Sunday on La Grande Jatte was, it changes the way we feel about things we might have written off for years.