Under run-of-the-mill, nose-to-the-grindstone circumstances, I compose these entries with a conventional, sometimes coy detachment – a position approximating third-person omniscient. Well, I do not need to tell you the mill has stilled and the nose knows not what to do – it is least omniscient of all. The circumstances, as they now stand, warrant a forthright idiom, so with this go-round let us acknowledge that I am the one who is narrating and you, Dear Reader, are the addressee. With similar coolness, let us also accept the current moment as one of ‘I’, albeit in surprising ways. ‘I’ for isolation, our paradoxical collective experience; ‘I’ not separable from the self that asks such existential questions as “What does the pandemic have in store for me?”
The word ‘crisis’ contains two ‘I’s, each followed by a winding ‘S’. From this spelling we can derive a lesson: alone together or together alone, each of us responds to crises individually, cutting paths to stability that are rarely straightforward. Presented here is a collection of notes on isolation and its notable adherents. Some notes, like the sibilant consonant, are purposeful but not immediately straightforward, and in their entirety they reveal, I am afraid, the limitations of my default frame of reference. Under duress I flee to a canon that is unduly (though wholly) American, but perhaps this is to be expected; from where I stand, so-called American exceptionalism – based on the exaltation of the individual – is coming to an end, falling in the wake of a biological aerosol. Were it delicate perfume and not mist from a stranger’s throat, we might at least prevail a hint sweeter – sweeter together, and sweeter to each other. Instead, we hold our breath – and wait.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854)
“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” Henry David Thoreau, 1. Economy, Walden
To launch our primer on the finer points of ‘me time’, I give you a man who so thoroughly loved to be alone that he wrote an entire book about it: Henry David Thoreau. Known foremost as an author who espoused the spiritual and intellectual tenets of Transcendentalism – an early nineteenth-century American philosophy that linked individuality and personal freedom to the lived manifestation of the ‘Over-Soul’, a unifying spiritual force – Thoreau was also a naturalist, an anarchist, and a student of Hindu scripture. His most famous text, Walden (1854), recounts a year living in a cabin at the edge of Walden Pond, a body of water near Concord, Massachusetts that was once rumored to be bottomless. Driven more by thought than plot, Walden elucidates Thoreau’s various influences and interests in an extended meditation on simplicity and harmony with nature, and it pits solitude against loneliness, which can be suffered even in the presence of others if a sincere connection is lacking. Today, Walden Pond is as endangered by tourism and climate change as any other natural wonder. Apparently, copious pee released by swimmers has altered the chemical profile of its waters. Urine – you’re out!, as the saying goes, although you will not find this dictum among Thoreau’s declarations – he could hardly have imagined that his idyllic abode would one day become a public commode.
Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)
Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau, contemporaries living proximate to one another, were unlikely to have met, if for no other reason than their mutual proclivity for seclusion. Homebodies do not often meet homebodies at the local watering hole. Moreover, Dickinson gave Thoreau a run for his money when it came to what we now call ‘sheltering in place’. Dickinson’s isolation, which has been attributed to ailments such as a nervous disorder and agoraphobia, superseded the philosopher’s hermit habits in severity and duration. From the late 1860s until her death in 1886, Dickinson notoriously eschewed public exposure. As the years passed, the boundaries of her world diminished, until she refrained from setting foot outside her room.
Bad for social capital but good for the pen, her extreme isolation led to a robust letter-writing habit (her primary means of communication with the outside world) and a period of intense productivity as regards her poetry. Handwritten versions of both still exist; snippets of the latter appear on paper scraps, used envelopes, and chocolate-bar wrappers. In 2016, the life of Emily Dickinson was the subject of A Quiet Passion (not to be confused with A Quiet Place). Considering the smothering social mores that defined the poet’s social circumstances in nineteenth-century New England, as portrayed in the film, it’s no wonder that she stayed inside.
Voyager Golden Records (1977)
A lone poet on a lonely planet wrote in 1923 that “nothing gold can stay”. A cursory Google search suggests many people credit Emily Dickinson with this axiom, but many people are wrong. These words belong to the titular phrase of a Robert Frost poem about the transience of beauty, vitality, and goodness in the world. Nothing Gold Can Stay is a masterclass in the power of economy. Only eight lines long, the poem inspires countless lines of rumination. One line leads to an appreciation of the seasons; another leads to pensiveness over human folly; and another leads to speculation about life’s rhythms, and from there wildly elsewhere. Could such rhythms exist beyond Earth? Over fifty years after Frost composed his famous poem, NASA launched Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, space probes meant for interstellar exploration. Aboard each was a copy of the Golden Record, a document of life and civilization on Earth. The record included a collection of diagrams, photographs, and a gold-plated disk on which was engraved sounds like heartbeats, thunder, and greetings in fifty-five languages. Its purpose was to convey an impression of our planet to intelligent life outside the solar system. That the chances of this happening are extraordinarily slim proves something indomitable about our drive to ascertain if we really are alone. As of April 23, 2020 (the time of writing), Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are still in operation, plunging on into the depths of space, holding fast their precious cargo. Maybe nothing gold can stay, but an ambitious quest can last forever. It is what we call an epic.
Agnes Pelton (1881–1961)
March 2020 was an inopportune month for art openings. Shows that debuted quickly closed, if they debuted at all. Even heavy hitters like Whitney Museum of American Art shut its doors, delaying public access to its new exhibition Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist. Heretofore little known outside her milieu in the American Southwest, Agnes Pelton, like other Modernist painters with whom she was contemporary (namely Georgia O’Keeffe and that other inimitable Agnes, last name: Martin), took inspiration from the desert. Her paintings depict New Age imagery in soft and otherworldly twilight hues. Swans and flowers, stars and clouds fill her canvases. On paper, it sounds rather trite; the work is anything but. Following in the wake of such watershed exhibitions as Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York (which ran from October 12, 2018 to April 23, 2019), it is difficult not to draw comparisons between the two esoteric painters and their unsung influence. As The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith pointed out in her review of Desert Transcendentalist, the unveiling of both artists, who were once excluded from the male-dominated Modernist canon, actively rewrites the history of painting. The picture rises anew, like one of Pelton’s morning stars, with greater recognition of its important women artists.
Frida Kahlo (1907–1954)
Frida Kahlo, the famed Mexican painter and notable exception to this American hit parade, was never one to fly under the radar. She was an art star and a fashion icon. Her biography is as colorful as her paintings, but behind the spectacle of fame was a woman whose political convictions put her at odds with the personal aspects of her work (she was an avid communist) and whose history of bodily trauma put her out of commission – emotionally and physically – time and again. The reason? At eighteen, Kahlo was impaled by a handrail in a bus accident. This injury, plus the many bone fractures and dislocations she incurred, caused medical problems that haunted her always; as a result, she was frequently hospitalized, confined to a wheelchair, stuck in her home. Her painting “The Broken Column” illustrates, in no uncertain terms, the extent to which her ailments and her art were linked.
Photographs of the artist in later life show her in bed (she lost a leg to gangrene in 1953), with a collection of brushes at her side. In an image from this era by photographer Juan Guzmán, Kahlo has decorated her own body cast – she wields a brush in one hand, and a mirror in the other helps her navigate her plaster-bound torso. Infirmity never crushed her creative impulse.
Henry Darger (1892–1973)
Outsider art, naïve art, Art Brut. All of these terms attempt to define artwork made by people who operate creatively outside the art academy and art market. The first two imply an essential otherness to the work and the artists who made it. Considering many of the artists labelled ‘outsider’ and ‘naïve’ are people of color and/or low socioeconomic status, there is something inherently prejudiced about the labels. The last, a phrase meaning ‘raw art’, coined by the French painter Jean Dubuffet to describe art made by children and the mentally ill, produces a fetishism for works by the ‘insane’ and ‘underdeveloped’.
The alternatives are no better. An ‘untrained artist’ is still qualified by the rubric of the establishment to which he or she does not belong, and a ‘folk artist’ could literally be anyone doing anything, from macaroni collage to chainsaw ice sculpture. This morass of problematic vocabulary makes it difficult to discuss people who simply consider themselves artists, but who do not participate in – and whose work does not comply with – the art world machine. Henry Darger is one such artist.
By all accounts, he was a loner whose religiosity and hardships influenced the artwork and writing that would posthumously bring him fame. His sprawling, decades-long project Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion contains volumes upon volumes of text and hundreds of illustrations rendered in a quasi-storybook style. The plot of Realms of the Unreal is about as convoluted as its full title, but the TL;DR version is: a band of valiant young sisters wage war against child slavery; there are winged monsters; many people die, often by public execution. Its target audience seems unclear, but perhaps this accounts for its wide appeal. Like its creator, it is in a class all its own.
The Twenty-First Century Artist under Quarantine (2020)
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a lot of unsolicited advice has circulated on the topic of what artists should be doing in response. Some argue: “Make work!” Others argue the opposite. Some say: “Seize the moment – be contemporary!” And still others preach self-care. In my experience, artists do not need someone telling them what to do. By and large, they resent it. From what I have seen, artists have responded to the pandemic better than most, and not because they jumped right into their studios, morbidly grateful for the unanticipated free time. Rather, it is because artists are a resilient bunch; they know their way around a crisis. Being an artist means choosing the winding path through life – a laborious one – if you’re an artist, you’re always at work.
That artists have been especially hard hit by the economic standstill resulting from the global shutdown is no secret. When schools, museums, and galleries closed, the entire commercial sphere of the art world ground to a halt mid-spin. No exhibitions means no sales; no exhibitions means nothing doing. Yet artists have found ways to strengthen their communities despite these dire straits, despite the inability to experience artworks in person, despite the prohibitions on gathering. Internet technology has played no small part in this, but the picture is bigger than a video chat room, and it is certainly bigger than a bunch of bored millennials recreating famous paintings with tea towels and reluctant fiancés. It is about facing our strange reality and the hard question of what comes next with a cohort who have built their lives on asking hard questions and facing unexpected answers. It is about the art of the difficult conversation. It is about being articulate when words fail us.
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