Radiant way-making (dao) seems obscured,
Advancing way-making seems to be receding,
Smooth way-making seems to have bumps,
The highest character (de) seems like a deep gorge,
The most brilliant white seems sullied . . .
The most pristine and authentic seems defiled.
The greatest square has no corners,
The greatest vessel is last to be attended to,
The greatest sound is ever so faint,
The greatest image has no shape.
Daodejing Chapter 41 (Ames and Hall version)
Picture an artist’s studio in Montreal. The middle-aged, male artist is chatting with a new female model a few years younger than himself. Many artists he knows prefer to sketch or paint in silence. But how can you paint somebody you don’t know?
“I’m through with slogans and campaigns,” he says when the subject of politics comes up. The causes of his parents’ generation strike him as sad and futile. “‘Never forget?’ As if memory could forestall the ultimate dissolution of all things! Sure, collective memory is a powerful thing. But humanity won’t last forever. Even this planet will be swallowed up by the sun someday.”
“But you do seem to have quite an appetite for the news,” says the model.
As usual, he has the shortwave radio on in the studio. It’s tuned to the BBC World Service, and he keeps it at a fairly low volume so it won’t dominate the conversation – or the play of his own thoughts when he’s alone. Mostly, it’s the sound of the voices that appeals to him, that ceaseless murmur.
“They call it news, but by the time it hits the wires it’s already a little old, you know? The bluebirds continue to perch out there on the electric line as if nothing were happening, even on the coldest days. Now that’s news!”
“What I don’t like,” she says, “is the way different stories of hugely different magnitudes are made to seem like they’re equivalent, just by the way they’re placed side by side in a newspaper, or one after another on the radio or TV.”
“Mmm,” he says. And after a moment: “But that’s not exactly new, is it? And I wonder what the alternative would be? Just yesterday I went for a walk in the country, and was puzzling over the odd conjunctions of animal tracks in the snow. A coyote accompanying three unhurried deer? Raccoon and fox in a pas de deux? Careful, now! This isn’t some tawdry scandal sheet! But when you see a line of small rodent tracks suddenly cease in the middle of a pair of wing prints – well, that’s clearly genuine Page 1 material. Or so I would like to think.”
“You have to be true to your own vision, I guess,” the model says vaguely. But the artist is still warming to his theme.
“My vision? Who says it’s mine? How do I know that? Turn back this way please – right there. Great!”
An hour later, they continue the conversation at a cafe down the street. “I just don’t understand how you can so dismissive of the power of memory,” she says. “Don’t you want to be remembered?”
“Part of me does, yes. But when I paint, I have to put that part aside. I have to forget.”
This is something she hasn’t heard before in all her years of working with Tormented Artists, and it goes very much against the grain of her Jewish upbringing. Which may be why she finds herself wondering whether it’s time to rethink that rule about never sleeping with her clients. The problem with artists, though, is that they’re always so distracted.
“So you think it’s better to forget?”
“No, I never said that! It’s not a question of one or the other. Let the “t” off and what do you get? A forge! In here” – he taps his chest – “or here” – his head – “or maybe – I don’t know. Maybe nowhere!”
“So it’s forgeries you’re after, then!” she exclaims, laughing. “Forgetting does entail a kind of forgery, doesn’t it?”
“No, I think it’s the other way around,” says the painter – who, it might be worth pointing out, gathers a substantial income from the sale of perfect reproductions of the Old Masters, many of which now hang in place of the originals in museums around the world. She doesn’t know this yet, of course. But her interest in the argument intrigues him. He could use an assistant.
“Because, look, at any given moment, the snow is mute. To forge a story from its maze of tracks, you have to forget the present, calculate melt time at various temperatures in the last 24 hours, and weigh the likely scenarios. Even if you set up cameras to record everything as it takes place, whatever narrative you derive from that is still a condensation, an imposition – a forgery.
“But! The patterns visible in the present do have something to say in their own right, I think. And that something changes from one moment to the next, as the sun beats down or more snow falls or another creature forges through the snow.”
“And what if that creature is you?”
“Or you! Imagine this: Imagine if every time you looked at a painting, everywhere your gaze tracked it would leave an impression in indelible paint. Imagine if we couldn’t look at anything without overwriting it, without leaving our own tracks. Not only would paintings become wholly transient things – or happenings, really – but the distinction between artist and non-artist would largely disappear. Museums would lose their separation from the rest of the world.”
“But surely you can’t want that!”
He smiles. “What makes you think it isn’t already true? Every time we look at something, we’re changed in some way ourselves, yes? And as we change, from one moment to the next, our perception changes. We do leave tracks, even if they are visible only to ourselves.”
“Okay. But something tells me that if seeing were as physically consequential as you seem to wish, that things would develop very thick layers of paint in some areas, and thin to nonexistent layers in others. Any artistry a painting might have at first – or, I mean, right after someone with real artistic vision interacted with it – would quickly be overwhelmed by the untrained gaze of the mob.”
“Would it? I don’t know. I have a hunch that those unpainted areas would quickly develop their own charism, so to speak, and that the feedback loops formed by such interactive gazing, in combination with an ordinary intelligence, would eventually lead almost everyone to become expert in the art of forgery.”
She laughs. “So you would save nothing – no artifact of anyone’s private vision?”
“Oh, I would! But paintings age just as we do. The colors fade. Grime collects. The paint cracks. They change, and our collective evaluations – our memories – change with them. I mean, the act of restoration can be highly controversial. Restore it to what?”
“Oh c’mon. It’s not that bad!”
“It can be. Think of how the great cave paintings in France and Spain were threatened by the mere presence of visitors: not only the molds and spores we carry with us, but the very carbon dioxide we exhale was profoundly damaging to them. In order to preserve anything at all, they had to be completely sealed away again. Faithful reproductions were created with the help of digital imaging so visitors would have something to look at in their stead.”
“If you don’t want immortality, what do you want?” she asks softly.
“I want to immerse myself in that forging,” he says, his eyes flashing. “That’s all! Not to be an artist. Not to be anything! Simply to become a part of everything that is beautiful, spontaneous, original!”
He touches her hand. “You and I – we’re nothing. Mayflies. Soap bubbles. There’s no great Artist in the sky. There’s only . . . ”
She places a sudden finger across his lips. They slowly get to their feet, put their coats on and pay the bill without another word. Outside, the streets are glistening with melting snow.
Thanks to Susan, whose typo in a recent comment thread prompted this little exercise in philosophical fakery.
UPDATE (Feb. 4): Thanks to Siona for suggesting some additional insights.