Art and the Predicament of Emotional Exposure
It is a Saturday afternoon in April, 2009. Visitors flow through the Metropolitan’s Bonnard exhibition like a restrained fluvial event. It’s not really in fashion to approve of Bonnard too strongly these days. But suddenly, amidst those straggling final frames of the show, was that self-portrait—a late work, rather small in dimensions. The composition is simple. The viewer stands where the painter himself, ostensibly, would. He is clad in a white undershirt that is unapologetic in its stark prominence. He is confronted with his own visage, reflected in a mirror, the bottom edge of which suggests a counter that has been colonized by an inexplicable assortment of bottles—that gallimaufry that bathrooms always seem to accumulate. The painter has caught himself in media res, in the midst of shaving that gaunt face of his.
The image seemed haunted by a terrible desolation—and it memorialized a face that had become estranged from itself through time or war or private suffering or isolation. That self-portrait felt like the material form of one lost man’s attempt to find himself again. Or maybe that’s a fable and the artist was perfectly jovial. Perhaps he later rambled cheerfully through the countryside of southern France gathering flowers for the next day’s artistic endeavor. Bonnard’s self-portrait was a beautiful violation, an intrusion that stole away all emotional control. Undone, I stood, occasionally jostled by a wave form—that obedient river of a crowd. I wept quietly, unashamed—it hardly mattered. That painting had made the world seem so unbearable that social decorum lost meaning.
The connection between art and vulnerability raises many theoretical questions. It also answers a practical one. In a world fired by the zeal of practicality and conviction in quantifiables, the question of why art matters—really matters—cannot be answered with a bluff, or arid speculation. Hows and whys aside, art does not just have the capacity to “move” viewers; it can insinuate itself into the very center of a person. The Bonnard moment was not classified as an “intrusion” by accident. The effective power of art is akin to a seduction, part invitation, part persuasion with all of the risk and vulnerability that entails. And though similar experiences might last only moments or days, its twin cannot be found. In fact, like a tiny version of mortality, the experience can never be regained, will never replay quite the same.
Even if it is ephemeral or minor, that vicarious sentiment is incontrovertibly unique. That is remarkable enough, but a singular, brief experience is the most innocuous consequence of this vulnerability which, at its most radical, can extend well beyond seconds. That Bonnard moment was not the first time that, in gazing at art, it had begun to gaze into me (nor, happily, the last). Still, I know that image even now, see it in dreams, occasionally search for it online. A glorious melancholy begins to well anew, just in the telling. Often, when art moves me profoundly, I think of it (quite unintentionally) as a “Bonnard moment.”
And that, ultimately, is a profound gift. Whether it discovers or makes it, the vulnerability that art inspires or exploits means more than exposure to a different vision of the world. Sometimes, that vulnerability can become so meaningful that it crystallizes to a singular expression and proleptically, it redefines how to conceive of the world at all. The invasion has been so profound, has evoked so much, so completely, that it leaves only itself behind, a new signifier that never existed in human language but then, improbably, begins to exist before it.
Alana Shilling-Janoff is a contributor to several publications including the Brooklyn Rail. Her recent work includes features on ancient Cypriot art, the history of printed books, emblems, and a fiction review for the Los Angeles Review of Books. She also writes a monthly column on theatre in New York City for the London-based Fortnightly Review: The New Series. Shilling received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University in 2011. Her research there focused on the empirical qualities of forgetting in Latin, Italian, Arabic, and English.