Looking back, I think I started reading stories about art because I tired of eros and arate. In the wrath of The Iliad or Woolf’s The Waves, through the passion of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or Nabokov’s Lolita, humanity’s highs and lows were exhausting. I had tired of bildüngsroman too, and sought something else. Novels, stories, poems, and later essays around works of art provided an account of something other than the endless waking, worrying, working, warring, and worshiping that were sufficiently familiar in my own life.
These stories certainly included their fair share of wrath and passion—for example, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray—but more often the works of art seemed there to evoke a sense of something lost, desired, or not yet understood, which might not be resolved by the end of the text, but spoke to my own experience of wandering museums. As a child, I followed adults around rooms filled with art, uncertain what I was looking at or why they cared so much, until the summer when I was told to roam for myself and expected to report in the evening over dinner on what I had found. I had all the Smithsonian museums to observe, from the Air and Space to the Hirshhorn. While my father was at work, for eight hours a day, five days a week, I wandered—aimlessly the first week. But that got dull, so I started looking for something that I wanted to look at. When I found it, I stared. I found that my mind would often make up stories about the people in the picture, or what I might see around the bend in the road, or what the breeze might feel like on a riverbank in the summer, or find strange ideas surfacing as I gazed at a large canvas of black and white stripes.
I picked postcards from the gift shop that made me think of someone even if the likeness was not apt, a peculiar act, I thought, until I read Proust and learned that Swann did the same. I was much relieved, however, that I had been able to maintain the distinction between the work of art and the person, but understood the tendency, or even desire, to get lost in another world. Reading Proust’s great tome, I found the passages about art enthralling, and read for those, rather irritated when the various love affairs, diplomatic expositions, or topographic discussions intruded. Were the works real? Was that particular work significant to the story? Was it a clue? Was it a passing digression for no purpose but the pleasure of including it?
Fiction is used to describe the human experience of love, death, birth, war, education, and we all nod that yes, the writer has captured that special something about those major life experiences. Art, however, remains on hallowed grounds, as if the experience of looking at art might not accurately be expressed by fiction just as it manages to describe these other pastimes. Can’t we learn something about what it is like to look at art from reading about others’ experiences doing so, whether those others are real or fictional? Brueghel has inspired reflections on war, life’s significance, and art’s personal attractions and distractions in W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, Anne Sexton, Muriel Rukeyser, and recently Michael Frayn. Alfred Corn’s poem “Seeing all the Vermeers” made me want to start compiling memories of visiting many Caravaggios. Bolaño’s brief essay “Titian Paints a Sick Man” is haunting. Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Smile” remains for me the best explanation for the long lines to see the Mona Lisa. Anyone who has ever been an artist’s model will smile at Christina Rosetti’s “In an Artist’s Studio.” As Baudelaire said, the best response to art may be an ode or an elegy. It may also be a prose poem, novel, or personal essay, describing the creative journey into the art work and then beyond it, back into life.
Art became a way not only to see things anew, but also a path of discovering what and how I see, accepting my leaps into metaphor as alternatives to description. Translating art can be focused on the art object’s aesthetic and historical presence, but it can also be about recognizing another way of seeing, appreciating a creative response, imagining something for yourself, translating yourself into art’s worlds to better translate your experiences of this one.
Charlotte Kent, PhD is assistant professor of visual culture at Montclair State University. Her work examines the role of the absurd in the contemporary. She lives in NYC and works with artists internationally.