Solitary Pursuit


in Archive


Everyone knows the feeling: discomfort, annoyance, rage, an entire range of emotions provoked by other people when one might wish to have total solitude, or at least relative peace and quiet. Welcome to the modern museum experience.

What do we want when confronting great art? Books are easy, ready companions, and it’s always possible to block out other distractions by resorting to noise-reducing devices that insulate us with auditory privacy. With film, live music and especially theater, the audience and its collective responses contribute to the greater pleasure of attending, even though there are plenty of times when one wants to smack the people sitting behind, talking as though they are in their living room; or the woman with dangling jewelry and poisonous perfume in the next seat. Rock concerts are based on mass participation; classical ones, formerly the closest thing to silent worship you could find outside a church, are starting to resemble them, becoming more like pop events. In most cities, like Dallas, where I live, everything warrants a standing ovation with whoops and hollers.

This leaves the visual arts. The aim — at least my highest aim — is a private, solitary contemplation of a single work, in silence and over a long period of time. Studies have confirmed my personal sense that the average looker spends no more than fifteen seconds in front of any painting. The act of looking, however, does not mean a passive glance by a fast-moving tourist equipped with an audio guide, but an extended act of reciprocal absorption. This is what I always hope for. Sometimes my hopes are dashed by my own inadequacies or temperament — the mind wanders, the tedious details of life interrupt my attention — but more often than not it’s the sheer unpleasantness of the museum experience that inhibits, indeed prohibits, active looking. Art is of the body, and if you are too hot or cold, if you have headache or hangover, you’re certainly not going to think or feel at your highest level.

The goal of the aesthete is not necessarily ownership but intimacy, to which ownership is often the surest course. Think of the Duke of Ferrara in Browning’s My Last Duchess, who pulls aside the curtain on the portrait of his dead wife for his visitor, thereby ensuring control over the young woman who was too easily pleased when she was alive. Now, he owns her two-dimensional substitute, which he need not share if he doesn’t want to. A student who tacks onto a dormitory wall the most cliché of art prints knows the pleasure of private looking, and even the least successful reproduction retains something of what Walter Benjamin called the aura of an original artwork. Authenticity and originality don’t count for much. In the quiet of that cell-block dormitory room, a $10 print can inspire intimacies with art unavailable in most museum galleries. You may not be able to gauge the delicacies of the picture — brushstrokes, color, other nuances — but an ersatz reproduction can generate an authentic response even when the skills of a connoisseur are lacking.

In the museum, noise is always the biggest deterrent to such intimacies. But the overheard conversations of people who have forgotten to use what our mothers helpfully referred to as “indoor voices” sometimes attest amusingly to the democracy of viewers. Some years ago I went to a show of Chinese bronzes from the People’s Republic at the Metropolitan Museum. Flanking the grand entrance of the galleries was a pair of Ming Dynasty vases, perched on ornate rosewood stands and embossed with dragons and delicately rich floral patterns. They stood four-and-a-half feet high. Before me, two earnest Manhattan ladies of a recognizable sort — well-coifed, wearing good jewelry — strolled in. They eyeballed the urns.

“Gorgeous,” said the first.

“But where would I put them?” asked the second. This was the entirety of their exchange. It spoke volumes.

This pair was not Joseph Duveen and J. P. Morgan, but they were a bourgeois, domesticated modern equivalent. For these ladies, all art aspires to the condition of the living room, and ownership — or the thought, the possibility of ownership — occupies their engagement with the art. The opposite in some ways, the equivalent in others, of these women is a serious art writer I have met who also, owing to family fortunes, owns important 20th century paintings. Preparing a book on contemporary museum architecture and design, she was making a study of major American museums. A mutual friend asked whether she was going to consider the issue of traffic patterns, the flow and movement of visitors, in museum spaces, and she looked at him quizzically, as if hearing of a bizarre, or at least novel, issue. “Traffic patterns?” she asked.

And then he realized: she has seldom if ever gone to museums when other people, or at least too many other people, shared her space. The doors open for her at special, private hours; her guides are not the helpful, solicitous docents, some better trained than others, who instruct school children and members of hoi polloi, but the chief curators of the collections. Neither traffic nor human noise will stay the slow completion of her appointed rounds, nor otherwise interrupt her private experience of the art.

Everyone who looks at art seriously can count the times he has had the accidental good fortune of privacy. In an encyclopedic museum — the Met, the Louvre, the National Gallery in London — all you usually need is a stroll out of the clogged thoroughfares, the space in front of, say, the Mona Lisa, herself triply protected by museum guards, a position behind a bulletproof frame, and the rail that cordons her off from the hundreds of cellphone photo-snapping tourists. Leave the great long gallery. I have walked into the Chardin galleries at the Louvre a handful of times and spent an hour with little or no interruption meditating on this master of the everyday, beloved of Proust and of everyone else with an eye for still life, “nature morte,” the arrangements of ordinary items, what Wallace Stevens might have called “planets on a table.”

All pictures are little worlds, cunningly made. One measure of artistic greatness, and of the artistic sensitivity of any viewer-consumer, is the capacity of a work of art to inspire long, thoughtful, responsive meditation in a viewer. Twice in the past two years I have visited Frank Furness’s neo-Gothic Victorian masterpiece, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in Philadelphia, my hometown. Both times, I was practically the only person in any of the galleries. “How sad!” said a Philadelphia friend. “Not for me,” I quickly replied. Sad for revenues, public relations and everything else the Academy’s front office counts on, but what could be better than being alone in picture-laden rooms with no noise and no other bodies to compete with one’s silent engagement with Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and Richard Diebenkorn?

Once I persuaded a kindly or perhaps just lackadaisical guard at the Brera Museum in Milan to let me pull up a heavy chair from the sidelines so I could sit and look undisturbed at Piero della Francesca’s Montefeltro Altarpiece, a Madonna and Child with surrounding saints. He even granted me the probably illegal privilege of momentarily walking behind a metal guardrail to get a real close-up look. Many museumgoers can tell similar stories, however infrequent. Standing or sitting still, looking long and hard, is a rare enough phenomenon, becoming rarer still in an age of edutainment when museums prefer, or feel compelled, to shuttle through their doors the busloads of school children and tourists who require a flicker of enlightenment before proceeding to their day’s next event or episode. Whatever art does these days, it seldom does it to isolated individuals, in quiet. Just as the hushed tones of libraries have long since vanished, so also indoor voices — more available in Europe than in the States — are being drowned out.

Every so often a miracle occurs. The crowds vanish. Perhaps no one is around to begin with as was the case for me in Philadelphia. Or perhaps something marvelous so transports the viewer that he can forget the crowds, noisy or inconvenient though they may be. At New York’s Frick Collection last winter, I waited for a spot to open and I just planted myself in front of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, on loan from the Netherlands, until I had looked my fill. I made myself ignore my noisy, jostling neighbors. The thrill of slow looking has also happened when I come to an art exhibition that changes my mind about an artist I never knew well: Kandinsky; Arshile Gorky, most recently. Or that opens my eyes to an artist of whom I have previously known nothing at all: Howard Hodgkin, for example, first in Fort Worth and then at the Metropolitan Museum; L. S. Lowry, at Tate Britain last summer. A world opens itself up and invites you in. The surroundings melt and it’s just you and the pictures. These things happen. Keats described the experience as feeling that a new planet has swum into your ken. He was thinking of literature — in his case George Chapman’s translations of Homer — but the analogy obtains.

And at least once, for me, the audience was part of the experience and not a deterrent to it. The event was musical, so although it resembled what happens in a symphony hall, opera house, or even — mutatis mutandis — a rock concert, its own uniqueness overwhelmed the attendees, who turned out to be not so much audience as participants in a shared experience. T. S. Eliot’s lines from The Dry Salvages never seemed more applicable: “music heard so deeply/ That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/ While the music lasts.”

In December 2013 I made a visit to the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum’s serene mediaeval outpost at the top of Manhattan. I wanted to see and hear the sound installation by the Canadian artist Janet Cardiff. That experience so moved me that I repeated it a week later. On two visits, ninety minutes each, I stood in a medieval chapel listening to music. What was it? In 2001 Cardiff made a recording at Salisbury Cathedral of Thomas Tallis’s mid-sixteenth century polyphonic motet Spem in alium for forty voices. She lined the walls with curtains and blankets to control the sound and to deaden the space. Nineteen additional children augmented the 40 called-for singers. All 59 wore lavaliere microphones attached to cables that ran to a truck outside. Then, combining some of the children’s parts, she reduced the audio tracks to 40. The eleven-minute piece, officially owned by the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, has been staged in many venues around the world, the Cloisters being the most recent and also the best and most appropriate of them. In all sites, forty stereo speakers — one for each voice — are positioned in a room. At the Cloisters’ Fuentidueña Chapel, a limestone Spanish apse from the 12th century, the work was “performed” continuously throughout the day over a three-month period. This was the first time the Cloisters had hosted any contemporary art, although the essence of the Tallis polyphonic piece is hardly contemporary.

The drill was easy. You stood somewhere, anywhere, in the chapel. The stereo speakers, mounted on stands and divided into eight groups of five (one for each of the vocal types: bass, baritone, tenor, alto, soprano), made an oval in the apse. The music began. Eleven minutes later it ended. Between “performances” you listened, if you so chose, to three minutes of chatter among and between the choristers. Then the tape began again. The idea for this is as simple as can be. Ordinary secular life miraculously gives way once the first sonorous bass voice sings “Spem,” and life of a different order begins. The gap between the chatter and the music may have provided the biggest jolt of all. Over the course of my 12 fourteen-minute cycles, I heard a full range of uninteresting exchanges, gossip, pleasantries (what Yeats called “polite meaningless words”) among the singers: “That line there got me messed up”; “In the end, where we turn the page from 19 to 20, we always get that wrong”; “Oh, you’re back?”; “We’ll do our very best, and then give you a breather…and there’s water”; “His last moments were spent recording Spem in alium”; “Hmmm”; plus noises of throat clearing, pages turning, humming, a tuning fork, a yawn, and pure vocalise. I felt I had entered into a long John Ashbery poem, with many frequencies of speech flowing right along. We were not so much hearing, as overhearing, this prelude to the adventure.

A helpful guard told me to position myself at the music stand of the first bass singer, toward the room’s entrance. At the end of the three minute chit chat, that singer’s voice ever so gently intoned, “Let’s rock,” which was — as I learned when I moved around the circle many times, simultaneous with other singers saying things like “OK, let’s give it a whirl,” and “Let’s give it our best shot. We’ve worked very hard.” The move, virtually unprepared for, from the ordinary or the secular to the transcendent or the divine, took place in an unheralded moment. The only equivalent I can think of is Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street, a film of a Chekhov production that never actually saw the light of day. The movie begins with stage actors emerging from the subway and the street, and walking into the theater for rehearsal. They chat on the largely vacant stage, and then, without so much as a curtain rise, or a “let’s start now,” they transport themselves, and us, to the world of 19th century Russia. The recent Globe performances of Twelfth Night on Broadway did the same, but stage music alerted the audience to the main event.

At the Cardiff installation, Tallis’s music existed in space as well as time. You stood at one end of the apse or the other, or you stood in the middle of the space. The term “surround sound” never seemed more appropriate. Or, better still, you moved from speaker to speaker to experience the individual voices one at a time. Or, best of all, you stood between speakers, between baritone and tenor, or between alto and soprano. Or you performed some combination of all of the above. Not everyone sings at once. And they are singing to us, and to one another. Moments of vocal silence punctuate the experience. The music could hit you frontally, laterally, or from behind, depending on your location.

Listening, you became undistractedly aware of the other people in the room with you. At a concert venue — pop or classical — you usually sit or stand facing the stage, the pit, and the performers. Even if you are waving your arms, singing and dancing along with the music, taking photos on your iPhone, you focus on the stage. At the Cloisters, in the 360-degree installation in which everyone is moving around slowly, you become as visually alert to your fellow human beings as you are musically alert to Thomas Tallis. I kept thinking of the French verb for attending a performance: not attendre but assister à. Somehow the attendees assisted in bringing the music to life; we were all handmaidens to the performers inside the stereo speakers.

The visible cast of characters, my fellow listeners, was both various and generic. Diversity was not much in evidence. More women than men had come to the Cloisters, either because it was a weekday or because that’s what women do. Sensible shoes, plus fifty or more shades of black and gray, predominated. Both men and women wore parkas, jeans, and tweeds: colorful scarves from Burberry and Liberty accented sober colors. Almost everyone was white, middle-aged or beyond, except for one young, hand holding lesbian couple, and a total of four small groups of teenagers. One group peered in at the entrance and then made a hasty getaway. Another quartet came in, whispered to one another, snapped photos on their cell phones, and skedaddled. They could not adjust to the old music or the fact of slowness — the tai-chi-like movements of the adults — and even the technology of the installation did not hold their attention.

The adults performed a far different ritual, all variations on the theme of what Keats called “silence and slow time” in the Ode on a Grecian Urn. They seemed to take their cue from a stone statue of St. Joseph twenty feet above us on the wall. He sits with his right hand cupping his cocked ear, as if waiting for the sounds to waft upward. Down below, the living audience began their advance into receptivity. Most visitors seemed to stay for one circuit of the piece, and then took their leave. Some stayed for two. Two ladies who had entered the museum with me stayed for three cycles. Almost everyone assumed a look and a posture of concentration. Some came in search of tranquility; others clearly were delighted to have encountered it. Everyone began with a short pause at the entrance, and then moved in and through the apse. Eventually, some sat with bowed heads and closed eyes, either slightly bent over or steadily upright; others gazed into space with eyes wide open, but obviously not focusing on the visible surround. I took a photo of two men on a bench, both balding and gray, but yin and yang. One, with hands on knees, looked worried. The other, his hands folded, his eyes open, emitted serene contentment. Was this the peace that passeth understanding, or an effort to achieve it? The listeners seemed to be contemplating either the ecstasies of world or its sorrows. Serene glances and gentle smiles predominated. There was little talk; you could see people occasionally speaking to one another, but of course neither human speech nor muffled footsteps could be heard over the music from the speakers.

My second trip was on an even bleaker, cloudy December morning. The apse was lighted; the crucifix was glowing. Illumination came from the high windows; the faded wall frescoes supplemented the color of the human costumes. The real illumination came in the form of sound, not light. Reverberations from the speakers bounced around the room itself. Because Cardiff did not mass all the parts of one voice in one place, the timbres are dispersed, creating a more harmonious, organic experience. The voices came both as individuals and in groups: a reedy tenor, a plummy alto, a sonorous bass, the children.

I became aware, more than on my first visit, of the opposing forces of inundation and uplift, of being surrounded and pierced, of being absorbed while also absorbing. We heard individual voices, plus antiphony — call and response across the space — and, taken as a whole, in the center of the room, the full force of Tallis’s polyphony. Just as the music is a composite of soloists, so also the audience is a community of strangers. I was alone in the crowd, but I was also a part of it.

My two visits put me in mind of the late American poet Amy Clampitt, whose extraordinary letters I edited a decade ago. She describes a transcendent moment at the Cloisters in a letter to her youngest brother, Philip, dated March 17, 1956:

After a while, when the music changed to something else, I was mildly aware that while this was going on I had — perhaps for no more than an instant, but there is no measuring this kind of experience — entirely forgotten my own existence. It is the sort of thing that has happened to me a few times in my life, but always before in moments of great excitement and with a kind of incredulity surrounding it like an iron ring. This time there was no iron ring, no excitement, no surprise even, but a serenity so complete that I hardly thought about it just then, I simply took it for granted. Possibly this is what is supposed to take place at baptism — but if baptism if it was, it wasn’t of water, but of light.

By this time it was late afternoon, and with the reflection from the river so bright that you could barely look at it directly, the whole hilltop, the whole world was fairly brimming with radiance. I walked around for a while, looked at the people, and walked to the subway, rather tired, and yet rested too, and pleased with everything.

This version of grace, an epiphany that came to Clampitt in the form of light, led mysteriously some days later to her beginning to write poems for the first time since adolescence. Forgetting her existence, her very self, was a vocational and spiritual transformation of the highest order.

For the final go-round on my second visit to the installation, I stood still in the center of the apse, eyes closed, in tadasana, yoga’s “mountain” pose. This is not easy to do for eleven minutes. The body sways, then it doesn’t. You begin to lose, and then regain your balance. The secret, I discovered, is to keep weight in your heels. Paradoxically, not moving makes you break a sweat. My experience, analogous to Clampitt’s but not as intense, also left me both tired and rested. Before the end of the motet, the whole ensemble has sung together only twice. The noble last movement begins with the word “Respice,” and the entire chapel resounds with the fullness of the music. The conclusion is a long exhaled chord. Human harmony symbolizes cosmic harmony. The music of the spheres has come down to earth and lifted us up.

As I left the museum, after my second visit, I felt two inches taller. And I said to myself “you’ll never experience anything like this again.”

I hope I may be wrong. • 23 July 2014


Willard Spiegelman is a regular contributor to the Leisure & Arts page of the Wall Street Journal, and the editor-in-chief of the Southwest Review. He teaches and writes about English and American poetry.