Thursday, November 1, 2007
WRITTEN WORD 14 - The Awful Romans
In that time when everything was changing and even before I had started to draw, for what seemed like the first time since childhood, the lampshades in my apartment were lined with of those different colored Metropolitan Museum buttons that proved you had paid something to be allowed into the Met on a given day (my payment never close to what the dishonest signs implied was a big required entrance fee, though in fact was only a donation – a donation of any amount, mine rarely being as low as a penny and never more than a quarter, for I suddenly needed the Met every day). I needed the Met and the Brooklyn and the Guggenheim and the Whitney and the Frick and the Drawing Center and an infinite number of galleries – the places where even before I picked up a pen or brush, I was experiencing these unfoldings in my life for which words had not yet come – unfoldings that never would have taken place if I had stayed with linear ways of writing - with silly A to B to C nonsense that “the men of measured merriment” (a great Sinclair Lewis term) always sum up, and usually make nice, in come contrived way at the end.
For many months I hardly noticed the Roman room, which at that time you had to pass through on your way down a corridor lined with strange ancient Cypriot statues of helmeted people with blank eyes. I would move off to the rooms on the right and on the left where all the Greek statues were placed, some grand and perfect in an archetypal way. The classic period ones never reminded me of anyone I had known in life, though some late ones, animals and old women, seemed true to individuals, and by the time of this later so-called degenerate Hellenistic period there were nude women not just nude men; there were actual people in the statues and they did not all look the same as in the earlier, still revered, archetypal statue people. And there was a grave-site relief stone carving of a bigger than life young, touching, surely once nurturing woman, draped but so soft and lovely even though the stone nose was missing, looking out with a sad expression on her face – a farewell scene, the plaque said, one of the few curator-written plaques in the Met that seemed to have anything to do with the pictures or statures they claimed to be describing.
Then on each day I would transition from the Greeks to coffee in a big cool cafeteria that looked like something that came from Alexandria or Atlantis – it had a fountain in the recessed center – and after coffee I would move quickly through Oceania and New Guinea to the newly opened 20th Century wing that was annoying the critics because it had art that was not yet, to them, in the canon – and this included the wonderful Hopper, the mundane Hockey, and the thought to be too common Curry and Kent, and virtual unknowns, including an artist named Walkowitz who had a painting that was a wild swirl of cities and mountains and a society-looking girl from an earlier time – a scene that an artist I knew had alerted me to for she found it a portrait of my life.
I would follow a passage to the 19th century and then cut back through a corridor of photographs, with a detour to a romantic Renaissance courtyard with Bernini figures and sexy Rococo girls and a silly nude Bacchus playing his violin – and then on to the big staircase and up to the European paintings, which now seemed profoundly like what home could be, if home could be with Rembrandt and Bellini, and after that maybe over to the strange light-hearted courtyard with its bank building façade and tight-ass trumpeting angel pulpit and its, in colorful but near stultifying good taste, Tiffany things – and on to the American wing, and pornography from early America (a sweet, naked marble white girl captive with her wrists bound just before a raping at the hands of fearsome Indians). And then back to the art that went deep.
And for months going to the Met nearly every day, often twice a day, I did not see the Roman busts as I went through the Roman room – which it should have been impossible to miss since you had to go through it to get to the Greeks or to have coffee. Those portraits of prominent Romans – intelligent faces without pity, cheap irony without any understanding.
And then one day I stopped and saw where I was, and knew, though the curator plaques implied the opposite, that the Romans had no art unless you counted these mug-shot portrait busts, these very precise renderings of emperors and their wives and relatives and hangers-on the way they wanted to be depicted – otherwise no art except grandiose, though not grand, buildings for cruel administrators – except copies of the works of their betters, the Greeks - but nothing else except these mug shot busts ordered up by the very people they portrayed who gloried in their cruelty – these cold busts of clever, heartless people whose appeal I knew too well.
And it seemed to me, though I was doing my best now to avoid fixed ideas, that right now these Roman figures had far more weight than the idealized figures of the Greeks. Romans figures, not the idealized archetypal Greek figures, let me capture my life in ways that thrust me into the worlds I had forgotten I knew – and would know far better when writing returned, not the old writing with constant epiphanies and resolutions such as never happen in life but rather the writing that could unfold after I had had time painting, letting in what would come, not just filling in blanks, not just trying to do something that was like something else, actually doing something that was something else – not just like any model or anything else anywhere. This in this time when I did not even think about depression, and followed the need to encourage what might come that I did not know yet, including messages that came from darkness. I cannot practice art, I knew know, unless I know the worst as well as I know the best.
That day when I paused in the Roman room I heard myself expressing gratitude that that ancient world had died. That world that produced those faces, the world that was proud of those faces – thank God, although I did not then believe in any god –“Thank God,” I heard myself saying aloud, while all these cruel emperors and hangers-on and consorts, including some who could have been my closest associates, looked out from a distant past which could have been the recent past – they looked out and turned their stares on me.
I did not think of myself as Christian then, but "Thank God," I said aloud, "that Christianity came along when it did."