Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Enough With Genius, Already

Above, Joan Miró, Toward the Rainbow, 1941, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998.

"I dipped my brushes in solvent and wiped them on the white sheets of paper with no preconceived ideas," said Joan Miró of the playful, intimate works on paper, the Constellations, that established his reputation in America when they were shown in New York in 1945. He'd made these paintings, gouache with oil washes, in dark days in indeed, in 1940 and 1941, in occupied France and then in Franco's Spain.

In the amazing retrospective show of his whole career on display at the National Gallery until mid-August, there's a priceless wall of five or six of these pieces. They're the quintessential Miró that you can't help but recognize, if you've had any previous acquaintance with his work at all.

The didactic panels in the show do what they have to do in a major art museum: they tell you why these pieces are important; they nudge you toward reverence in the presence of genius. The Gallery website is quick to quote Miró saying that the Constellations were "one of the most important things that I have done," and to say that as a consequence of the 1945 exhibit Miró was subsequently welcomed in America "as one of the great figures of the modernist movement."

But what turned my crank as I stood in front of these paintings last week was anything but homage to Miró's genius. I love these paintings because I look at them and think, "I could do that. I can do that. I'm going to do that."

Not as brilliantly, not with his sophistication. But Miró is empowering rather than awe-inspiring as an artist. He leads with his playfulness, not with his technical mastery. "I dipped my brushes in solvent and wiped them on the white sheets," he says. It's Miró's "Beginner's Mind," in the Zen sense, that brings me joy and sends me home wanting to let go of preconceived notions as deeply as he did: to be guided by the same pleasure in line and simple shape for their own sake, to be just as seduced by the raw magic of color spreading across white paper, to let things build up associatively and experimentally until the eyes and nose of some loopy, surrealistic creature finally invite discovery amidst the crush of invention.

The cult of genius doesn't have much to do with the artistic impulse. That's what you have to discover in the shadow of everything museums--however necessary and however well intentioned they are--do to convince you otherwise. Behind their incessant talk of importance and lines of influence and recognition lies the prior moment when an artist couldn't stop himself from making marks on paper, when he lost himself, and found himself, in the process of creation--when he made art not because he was an artist, but because he needed to make art in order to be truly alive. When we glimpse it, it's that moment which encourages us to claim our own creativity as well, to go home saying, "I can do that."

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Blessed Solstice

Supple and turbulent, a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a god, but as a god might be,
Naked among them, like a savage source.
Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,
Out of their blood, returning to the sky;
And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice,
The windy lake wherein their lord delights,
The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills,
That choir among themselves long afterward.
They shall know well the heavenly fellowship
Of men that perish and of summer morn.
And whence they came and whither they shall go
The dew upon their feet shall manifest.

Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning," Section VII

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


This is my prayer for you, whoever you are reading this, in these longest, brightest, most generously welcoming days of the year. May you find a way, today, or tomorrow, or the next day, to shirk responsibility, get off track, and lose yourself in something pointless. May you misplace your day planner, smartphone, or whatever you use to keep the list of things you need to accomplish. Or better yet, may you choose to set it aside and take the plunge back into something you know you love but just haven’t the time right now to indulge in.

Maybe it’s waiting for you in the kitchen; or the garden; or the bedroom; or on the easel shoved for the last six months between the filing cabinet and the wall; or on the massage table; in the aquarium shop; in the gallery; in the guitar case; at the animal shelter; in the antique shop; in the knitting bag; on the curb the night before trash pickup; at the beach in a pile of driftwood; in the fabric store; on the bike path; at the greenhouse; deep in the woods; in the middle of a meadow; on the tennis court; in the dance studio.

May it be free of the burden of usefulness. May it carry you far away from any voice within that says, it’s no good, it’s of no interest to anyone else. May you not even think to look over your shoulder for anyone’s approval. May you forget to look at your watch and then be startled to learn how much time’s gone by.

May it pry you loose from grind of work, from the anaesthesia of mass media, from the grip of addiction. If you find it all too easy to get off track, may you do it this time by conscious choice, without guilt, and feel when you’ve done it that it’s enough.

May it make you say, yes. This is what it feels like to be in my own skin, in my own soul, in my own joy. This is what it should feel like to be alive.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Old Enough to Be Your Father

At left, James Broughton and Joel Singer. Photograph by Robert Giard.

I’ve been taking inventory lately of how many of my friends are at least fifteen years my senior or junior. I'm attentive to the question because of an intensified sense of my own aging—a function of increasingly exuberant aches and pains, but these last months ratcheted up as well by the number of friends, in most cases people my own age or younger, now facing life-threatening diagnoses. 

A woman I’ve known for over twenty-five years, my closest friend during the time we taught together in San Diego, is twenty years older than me. She has a great gift for intergenerational friendship, of which I’ve been only one of many beneficiaries. I don’t think it’s even a stretch for her to reach out socially to those young enough to be her kids, or even, at this point in her life, practically her grandchildren. It just seems to come naturally.

 I’m six years older now than she was when we met, and I find myself thinking, I should do so well—but in particular, I should do so well in bridging the intergenerational chasm in my relationships with other queer men. As a kid, like so many all-too-well-behaved little gay boys, I gravitated naturally towards adults. In my mid-twenties, determined to embrace a fully gay life, I fell into a narrower cohort of men who saw their place in the world more or less as I did, shaped as we were by the twelve or thirteen years between Stonewall and the onslaught of AIDS. Most of us were deeply energized by the politics of coming out, though not all of us were equally radicalized.

I was insufferable in my impatience toward older men who’d mastered the finely calibrated arts they'd needed to survive a world far more uniformly hostile than the one we had to face, for all the homophobia we confronted and opposed. When these older men and I did befriend one another, I was often patronizing and more or less blind to the treasures of their wry irony; their hard-won but less complicated sense that their personal lives were nobody’s business but their own; their ability to let go of battles that weren’t worth fighting; the flexibility with which they could finesse the very questions of firmly declared sexual identity that my emerging view of the world was based on. My connections with such men often didn’t survive my inflexible judgmentalism. I’d say now that my life was the poorer for it.

Befriending the young, on the other hand, didn’t even seem an option. Any solidarity we might have ventured in the 1980s toward anyone under twenty-one was hysterically denounced as recruitment and predation, and many of us chose the easier and safer path of sealing ourselves off from the next generation's pain and isolation—but also from their promise and energy. Meanwhile, the young learned to fear the stereotyped rapacity of older men. (Later, the drag queens would come home to roost: at least some of those a generation younger than us would use their different experience of AIDS as an excuse to write us off as summarily as we’d dismissed our pre-Stonewall brothers.)

I’m beginning to think that perhaps the single most damaging effect of homophobia on gay culture is the opprobrium it heaps on us, even today, when we risk reaching across age cohorts . The generational segregation that’s become endemic to North American society is all the more absolute in the solitude and misunderstanding that far too often divide gay men now in their fifties and sixties from those in their eighties, as from those in their teens and twenties and thirties. We need queer elders to reassure us that we are in fact part of something more enduring than our own moment; we need queer heirs to whom we can pass on whatever we’ve created of lasting worth. We need networks of friendship and mentorship to help us make sense of the passage of our own lives and to impart meaning and dignity to the mortal condition shared by old and young alike.

If we need these roles and relationships, we need as well the resolve and social means to foster them. We need ceremonies to make them visible and honor them. Amidst the overwhelming attention that gay marriage now commands (for better and for worse), we need rituals to recognize bonds between elder and younger friends, between protégés and mentors, outside the structures of the nuclear family to which even same-sex couples are now pressured to aspire.