Art is a Cat

by F.


Jerry Saltz has a piece in the Village Voice on the use (if any) of visual art. I’m not sure the piece says much more than “I like visual art, and others do to,” and it is close to just being a bunch of metaphysical hooey, but it’s worth a quick read if the vis arts trip your emotional triggers (as they do mine):

Antonio Cassese, a distinguished Italian jurist serving on the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in the Hague, would sometimes go to the Mauritshuis museum after hearing continual testimony about Balkan atrocities. There, he looks at what are among the two most beautiful things ever made, Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring and his View of Delft.

He does not do this because these things are “merely beautiful”; he does this, Cassese says, because these paintings were “invented to heal pain”; “they radiate a centeredness, a peacefulness, a serenity, and are a psychic balm.” In other words, when we look at art, we’re not only looking at it; we’re also looking into and through it, into and through the paint, pigment, canvas, or whatever to something else.

You’re not only seeing yourself and the mind of the maker; in some metaphysical but organic way you’re seeing the group mind, and even all the minds that have ever lived. You’re seeing a static object that has thought and experience embedded in it, a changeless thing that changes through time. Of course, some art does just deal with so-called formal issues. But even this art does more than that.

Maybe. But here’s the money quote:

The closest I’ve come to getting a handle on all this is something painter Eric Fischl has talked about. Imagine calling two pets, one a dog, the other a cat. Asking a dog to do something is an amazing experience. You say, “Come here, Fido,” and Fido looks up, pads over, puts his head in your lap, and wags his tail. You’ve had a direct communication with another species; you and Fido are sharing a common, fairly literal language.

Now imagine saying, “Come here, Snowflake” to the cat. Snowflake might glance over, walk to a nearby table, rub it, lie down, and look at you. There’s nothing direct about this. Yet something gigantic and very much like art has happened. The cat has placed a third object between you and itself. In order to understand the cat you have to be able to grasp this nonlinear, indirect, holistic, circuitous communication. In short, art is a cat.

The feline analogy isn’t totally inapt, it seems to me, possibly because the cat’s “communication” is completely baffling and mysterious, and yet oddly fun and inviting, like the best art tends to be. It’s that state of joyful confusion that may be the heart of the aesthetic (and perhaps religious) experience.