I guess art’s scariness is part of the delight most of us must eventually succumb to in doing it.
On the receiving end, there is Kafka’s famous dictum:
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.
I can’t recall willingly going anywhere that forecast a challenge.
The sublime with its attendant terrors is probably best approached unwittingly. Two experiences I’ve had with Mark Rothko paintings in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art point up a couple of possible routes. In the first, I turned the corner of a partition wall and before consciously registering the large yellow expanse in front of me, I had the sensation of being yanked out, however mildly, of my shoes. The next proved more normal: after a minute or two, standing very close to the surface with an eye to inspecting how the work had been painted, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck start to fibrillate. In neither instance was I purposefully looking for the Sublime that Rothko himself insisted should be the order of the day; it happened, as it were, without design.
BILL BERKSON is a poet and art critic living in San Francisco and New York. He is professor emeritus at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he taught art history, writing, and poetry from 1984 until 2008.