Friday, May 30, 2008

New York City

(May 12-13)

New York City is America's most populous metropolis. (Say "most populous metropolis" three times fast.) It boasts 8 million denizens, all of them taxi drivers. Clear communication can be difficult in a city with such diversity - part of being a New Yorker involves not knowing English. Because of this, New Yorkers have developed a shared language with which to articulate their feelings, known as Car Horn. (It is helpful that all New Yorkers own a taxi cab with which to communicate.)

I spent most of my time in New York visiting museums. The Moma and the Met, in particular. The Moma was, as I believe I once put it, mind-blowing. It also enlightened and inspired my mental capacities. I was amazed when, in the middle of a world-famous art museum, this one guy was walking through all the exhibits with his eyes on the floor. He didn't look up once. Fortunately, he could not have missed these fine twins of aesthetic expression:

Is that metallic poo? My dad says it's actually people on top of each other, under a blanket of putty. Who knows?

Every room/exhibit in the Moma had an exact limit, as in limiting how many people could be in it. They came up with figures, and I'm not kidding, like 572, 385, and 191. "No more than 572 PEOPLE are allowed in this room at once. - NYFD" It made me wonder - how did they figure this out? Was it Trial and Error? Is this based on how many people can physically fit inside the room while leaving space for last-minute escape? And if so, what human dimensions were used? Did they account for the effect of New York pizza?

More importantly, I wondered how this might be enforced. If a room is found to have 580 people, would they not be so physically packed that it'd be physically impossible for 8 people to squeeze themselves free? Would all this force compress everyone into some dense, shapeless mass? Is that what that iron sludge was? Or if there are already 572 people in a room, are we expected to intuitively know that we are Number 573 and not step inside? How can we know not to step in and become Number 573 if the Person Limit is posted inside the exhibit, instead of outside like a portentous ward of Doom? Should we take numbers?

Exhibit B:

This was right next to Andy Warhol's army of Campbell's. What is this? Does this evoke thought just because we assume it's in the museum for a reason?

I spent a lot of my time in a photography gallery which actually didn't contain any photography, but was designed for taking pictures. (See the upper-right of my blog.) Another example:

This was a wall made of shaped hexagons of mirrors and windows, which made for some trippy sights when you walked up to it.

Unfortunately, I spent so much time in this exhibit, as well as looking at a large painting of the word "OOF," that the museum began to close before I'd seen the top two floors (where all of the best stuff is to be found). The idea suddenly occurred to me - what if somebody just sprinted through a museum? What if people never paused when something caught their eye, and just sprinted from exhibit to exhibit and experienced the entire museum in just 20 minutes? Would the changing, peripheral Modern aesthetics have some kind of effect on us? How different would it be from staring at paintings of chicken noodle soup and the word "OOPS" for 10 minutes a piece trying to figure things out one piece at a time?

I loved the museums. The pure amount of art was staggering, and it was enough to hammer a point into my skull. This was very painful, and I was afraid that my skull would continue to split along the rupture, but a taxi driver who drove not unlike Indiana Jones got me to a hospital in time to patch things up. After this was resolved, I realized an important idea. Every piece of art was struggling to articulate something.

I thought Modern Art was kind of pompous in that it set out something ridiculous, like this -

- and then challenging the viewer, saying "Ha! Find out what this means, sucker! Try to impose your view on bones in a garbage can!" They don't allow us to decide what things really mean, and create such an odd composition that they're completely distanced from critics who are, let's just face it, neither trained or equipped to deal with bones in garbage cans.

But this is not the idea I was talking about. I came out of these museums feeling that all of this stuff, all of the man hours spent recreating soup cans and arranging bones and shaping alloy defecations must have been inspired by something. And I realized that that something was not just a desire to stick it to the viewer, or to simply create eye candy, or even to preach some message.

I think all of these odd forms of expression come from a struggle to articulate the something that pervades all of our lives but evades our understandings. They're like an army of question marks - Why did Benny's wife leave him in Winnipeg after bringing him all the way from the Philippines? Does one vote, or even one voice, really count? What spark makes a stranger into a friend? We don't just throw these questions around to show off how "deep" we are - we all have questions like these, uncertainties that seem desperately important to us that might just be swimming under the surface of our consciousness. More than anything, I'd say they show how deep humanity is.

And that, I think, is the fuel behind all the Greco-Roman statues in the Met, all of the 15th century European paintings, and the scribbles and paint splashes of modern art. The artist trying to place himself in the odd and changing stream of his reality, or at least find something solid.

I left the Moma and went directly over to St. Patrick's cathedral, the main Catholic mainstay of New York City. It is really one of the only cathedrals in the US with truly European architecture, according to my Australian hostess.

I walked up the steps into the building and sat in a back pew. The priest was singing a hymn with an organ in the background, and after he finished he gave a little message out of one of the Gospels. And then something hit me.

It was kind of odd to be suddenly hit by something in the middle of a church, so I got up and left. Then an idea occurred to me. Maybe religion is a kind of art. Maybe art is a kind of religion. Maybe they're both arms outstretched to grab hold onto some kind of Answer for all those questions that "hit" us. As a writer, I often wonder what the real role of my chosen profession is; I wonder not just what makes good art, but why we even have art in the first place, and what it does for us. I have deep suspicions, obviously, that it is very important. I wish I could explain the necessity of artists like one could explain the necessity of bridge builders. But I think one of the most important things to "hit" me on my trip was this idea in New York City that art and religion and maybe everything are symptoms of us just raising our questions and looking for answers.

I visited Central Park, walked past the Statues of Liberty sitting and standing outside the park, and actually ended up somehow in Union Square, where I watched people play chess. One guy challenged me to a 5-minute speed game with $5 on the line - I'm not going to lie, losing to that man at speed chess would have topped of my NYC experience like nothing else could've, but I had to get back to my host's apartment for babysitting.

The girls I babysat were insufferably cute and intelligent. The latter proved to be a problem as I waged the War of Getting Them To Bed On Time. Many lives were lost on the crucial battlefields of Brushing Your Teeth, dramatic attacks and counterattacks took place at the battleground of How Far To Leave The Door Open, and untold sacrifices occurred on the bloodied hills of I'm Afraid Of The Dark, Will You Sing Me A Song?

I left the next morning on an early train for Niagara Falls, which I almost missed. Luckily, I was able to grab one of the unstoppable juggernauts known as New York Taxis. As we vaulted down hills and barreled through physically impossible turns, the driver speaking in another language on his cell phone the whole time, I knew that I would be okay. And I was.

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