Though I have a favorite Renaissance portrait or still-life in every museum I've visited, I have always been most moved by abstract and modern art. I fall over myself for Clyfford Still, Ellsworth Kelly, even for Mark Rothko now and then; and the brilliance of glass-and-steel architecture never fails to catch and hold my attention.
There is something about these pieces of art -- the ones in front of which you hear people saying "I don't get it" or "I could do that" or "But what is it, really?" -- that speaks to me.
I remember, a few years ago, seeing Olafur Eliasson's exhibition "Take Your Time" at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. The whole collection was astoundingly moving, but the piece that still stays with me is Beauty: a waterfall of mist illuminated by two lamps, all mounted in the center of an otherwise blackened room.
I love what Alain de Botton says in The Architecture of Happiness:
we should allow abstract sculptures to demonstrate to us the range of thoughts and emotions that every kind of non-representational object can convey. The gift of the most talented sculptors has been to teach us that large ideas, for example, about intelligence or kindness, youth or serenity, can be communicated in chunks of wood and string, or in plaster and metal contraptions, as well as they can in words or human likenesses. The great abstract sculptures have succeeded in speaking to us, in their peculiar dissociated language, of the important themes of our lives.
The gentle movement of water and color can tell us something about ourselves, whether or not we understand what that might be. It may be as simple as the realization that abstractions can move us -- that we are more vulnerable than we think. For me, Beauty represents that ideal: that here we are, all animals, gathering to see water and light, and from those we can derive so much meaning.
I was thinking of all these things a few weeks ago when I read about Alan Cumming's one-man production of Macbeth. In a video for the New York Times, he performs a few terrifying lines of Lady Macbeth's, his eyes staring down the camera that receives them.
It was that penetrating gaze that made me uncomfortable, almost nervous, when I first saw it. The character demands so much of her audience: her aggression is more than any of us can bear; it stirs within us a fire that few have ever felt. Such are Shakespeare's words, and the brilliance of their interpretation (something I often practice, reciting soliloquies to myself in the car).
I am always gravitating toward art like this: art that causes discomfort. Once, when discussing silence in musical improvisation, I employed Miles Davis as an example: such long pauses, bursts of only two or three tones -- one feels as if one has just walked in on him deep in thought.
I enjoy art that inspires discussions of "But is it really art?" (though the discussions themselves are far beyond worthless). Musicians who play every silence, dancers who push the body to the edge of its recognizability, architects who challenge us to live in stranger and more spectacular homes, artists who show us that water and light can be a sculpture, and an indescribably powerful one at that.
These pieces force us to move beyond the familiar, toward what can be felt and perhaps never understood. Not knowing is a place of discomfort, because it reminds us that if we cannot define art or music (or affect or emotion), these integral parts of our being, then how can we possibly define ourselves?
I have found that that's a wonderful place to be, right on the edge of understanding. It is a place from which we lift ourselves out of confusion and into wonder.
Kahlil Gibran: "When you reach the end of what you should know, you will be at the beginning of what you should sense."