Today, I did for the first time what I hope will become a habit: I took myself on a date. I did this at the urging of The Artist’s Way, a book written by a woman named Julia Cameron for people (artists and non-artists) who want to augment their artistic lives. Cameron writes, “We forget that the imagination-at-play is at the heart of all good work … in order to have a real relationship with our creativity, we must take the time and care to cultivate it.” I took her at her word.
My date was to the High’s Annie Leibovitz exhibit, something I’d been meaning to get around to, but for which I had somehow never found the time. After a bright, breezy morning with Ivy and Andrew at the park, I showered quickly (who was there to impress, after all?), threw on my flip-flops and the most comfortable dress I own, and drove to Midtown.
Immediately, I savored the freedom of all this; the bold stroke of life on my own schedule. And it’s not that anyone in my life demands so much of me that it is a burden, but there is something deliciously indulgent about not having to apologize for parking a mile from the museum (in 90 degree weather) because you are too cheap to pay for parking, of walking through an art exhibit alone without feeling the need to respond to anyone’s opinion or curiosity, without worrying whether you’re spending too much time at each photo or not enough. Add to this the fact that I have been waist-deep in Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, and the freedom tasted that much sweeter. (I am so moved by this book, I can’t even write about it yet. If you have not read it, you must.)
My experience with myself and Annie Leibovitz’s photographs (from both her personal and private collections) was filled with both a thrilling appreciation for beauty and startling emotion. I stayed there for two hours, looking for stories in every photo.
I became fixated on one photograph of Leibovitz’s parents on their 50th wedding anniversary, on another of a pool of blood beside a fallen bicycle in Sarejevo, and another of two circus performers: a woman was strapped to a massive red and white bullseye – on her face was a look of total boredom and resignation; a man stood in front of her and took aim with a dagger. I cried at the sight of Johnny Cash, June Carter and Roseanne Cash playing music on their front porch in Kentucky. I cried again when I came to Leibovitz’s photo of bloody footprints left from the massacre at a schoolhouse in Rwanda. Again, I cried at the photos preceding Susan Sontag’s death, and the death of Leibovitz’s father. Leibovitz captured each scene, each tiny moment, with curiosity, dignity, a raw and naked tenderness.
This afternoon, while standing in the High Museum, where everything is brilliantly white and crisp (its design reminds me of what it might be like to live inside an iPod), it struck me that all art – drama, visual art, music, writing, etc. – is connected by that which is alive in all of us. The spirit of great art is the thing that moves us from hope to despair and back again. It leans in to curiosity — not just to beauty and freedom, but also into ugliness and rage. Art is always looking for answers, retribution, a kind of hope that sees clearly the pain and unfairness of the world but continues to demand more of it.
After leaving Leibovitz, I wandered into the High’s museum store and was overcome with the urge to buy something beautiful. I recognized in this a desire to bottle my experience, to bring it home with me and put it on a shelf – as if a painted porcelain bowl or a coffee table book would somehow infuse my living and work space with a better sense of purpose, or some higher plain of artistry.
But the truth is that such things can only stretch so far. Eventually, I would flip through the $75 coffee table book out of moral obligation, would, at some point, pass the beautiful serving bowl and think, with disdain, that it needed dusting. I’m all about cherishing beautiful things, but then again, we have museums for a reason. They show us what to look for and help us to see. They silence the noise in the background and force us to take notice.
To make some odd purchase – a postcard? a High Museum pencil set? a brightly painted umbrella? – would have cheapened the experience for me. As if I’d won myself a stuffed panda by playing skee ball at a country fair. So – the beauty will have to wait for my next artist’s date. Luckily, Cameron prescribes one per week.