Missing Art's Physicality
Newsweek just ended physical print. I get it. Newsweek’s transition to the digital realm is news. Twice.
But art is not news.
There is a romance for physical print that is just that, and then there is the reality of experience that generates that romance—engaged senses, phenomenological experience, that is different from digital engagement.
I write a little about art in my space—tease out directions and a little back-story. Then there are images of the images to go with the writing. But photos can’t recreate the sensation of physical encounter, of physical reality.
Benjamin’s pew is aggressive-passive. First thing you walk into is a confrontation. He compares it to Tilted Arch, and it will certainly move you. You have no choice but to choose the path the pew chooses for you. But like the grandparents conjured by its history, we imagine they had traditional values that sometimes judge and scorn breaches; the pew also offers solace and welcoming comfort. What begins as a defined affront becomes a backdrop, a place to reflect, and then to relax. I may even brew some tea or offer a beer to accompany the conversation, for the sitting. The offer doesn’t feel like a mannered gesture You may not even recognize that the art has worked on you. But you walk away full of a conversation and the boundaries shifted during the speaking. Even as I write this I imagine that it is my job as a writer to convince you of the possibility of such a shift. But those who drank with me need no convincing. They found a more gentle space than was here before. I didn’t soften my conversation. The setting, the art, changed my social graces.
The digital presence of the gallery art is a boon. Perhaps you are one who will read this rather than braving the rain. I am often one of those, too. I don’t attend every show that piques my attention. Sometimes my attention is directed through the digitized encounter. Sometimes I can’t even be bothered to read from a screen even though I can spend hours a day in front of it. I will graze on likes and links before digging into an article.
I once had a conversation with my dad about the value of things that stand the test of time, and things that don’t. I like ice cream. Like it enough to feel that someone has missed a very good thing in life if ice cream has never been on her lips. But ice cream doesn’t stand that test. It is a triviality. It is temporary. And it does not offer any substantial nutrition, nor contribute to anything that is long lasting. But I still value my numerous encounters with ice cream.
I am not trying to generate any argument against the conveniences and dalliances that the digital era brings. I love that I can rifle through the work of artists from all over, like that I can browse and graze, but at some point I need to dig into the substance of things or I can’t trust that there is any substance. And that isn’t simply reading what sits next to the work. I have to let physical space and physical objects change my body, my path, my rhythm.
And this question of substance is a funny one. We, in these United States, learn rational thought via Plato. Before Plato’s ideas got to us, they were already incredibly mixed up with lessons from Sunday School. Plato thought that the best stuff isn’t stuff at all; it begins in the ethereal plane. You know, like Inspiration, like Vision, like Virtue. Looking at an immaterial version of something makes sense to us in a quiet way because we don’t have to deal with all that nasty stuff—the image on the screen is lighter, gets us to the good part faster. Refined.
We are at a moment where many of us recoil at the idea of refined flour in our bread. But we still want our images to be refined. To be uplifting.
To someone who has little experience with dense and coarse bread, it can feel like a chore to eat it. But for those who have eaten very good versions of rustic, slowly fermented, deeply flavorful bread, scoff at the bland qualities of the instant and easy. Art in a place seems very much like that. You have to be there with it for a while. You have to be with it long enough that nuances reveal themselves.
The art that holds my interest is art that doesn’t get me to conclusions too quickly. When we are physically with the art we can experience it from different vantage points. One of the places always lost in the digital realm is the dance with peripheral awareness—that space and time when we are with the experience, but inattentive; distracted. The better content of Benjamin’s pew reveals itself through that tension of undeniable and assertive presence that we are allowed to ignore. Feels like a paradox without feeling like a riddle to solve. And none of it can happen without me being in the place with the art along with all the things that are not the art—my body, other people, the rest of it.
Sometimes we just have to brave the rain and go to the place to see the thing.