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Dear Grammarians,
Please excuse the long untoward silence. I break it now with some thoughts on a painting by Joan Miro I saw yesterday at the Met.
I have never written on art before. I know very, very little of art history. The way I look at and talk about paintings is informed by my studies of poetry, particularly of modern poetry. I subscribe to the theory (which I’ve learned from James Longenbach, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Frank Bidart, and Robert Pinsky, primarily) that all art, literature, and music works by pattern and variation. A pattern is established, then a slight (or not so slight) addition, subtraction, fragmentation, or otherwise disruption of the pattern surprises the viewer/reader/listener, and this gives him enormous pleasure. This is to preface (excuse) the following naïve attempt at art criticism.
The Met has some great paintings by Joan Miro on the first floor of the Modern Art section, including this one.
The title is “Women, Birds, and a Star.” Miro has other paintings of women and birds. I try not to look at titlecards until after I take a good long look at the work. Usually I don’t find museum titlecards very helpful, but in this case the card quoted the artist, who said: “It might be a dog, a woman, or whatever. I don’t really care. Of course, while I am painting, I see a woman or a bird in my mind, indeed very tangibly a woman or a bird. Afterward, it’s up to you. 
Which are the women, and which the birds, in this painting? It’s even hard to determine how many individual figures there are. Are some or all of the women also birds and vice versa?
Look at the title again: “Women, Birds, and a Star.” A Star! Even indefinite, the article tells you there is ONE star—something definite and knowable somewhere among these diaphanous birdladies. So I look for it, and I find it without difficulty. There it is, top-right. Finding it is such a relief.
But this relief is extremely fleeting. Three dark, mostly-straight lines crossed to form the lonely star near the top of the canvas, tossed in almost like a doodle in the margin, an afterthought. 
So why should it concern us? There it is. A star. No question. In other words, not that interesting. Instead let’s get back to the women/birds question, which, because there seems to be no answer, can occupy us endlessly. But an endless argument over whether the thing before you is a woman or a bird can be exhausting, not to mention depressing. What the hell am I doing spending all this energy sorting out birds from women? What exactly am I accomplishing, here? These things look nothing like birds or women. What makes them so? Miro’s word? What am I, crazy? 
Wait, where did that star go? At least I know that’s a star. Oh, there it is—yep. That’s a star, all right. But what about these other things? . . . and so on.
I love this painting because in it, as in all the great art I’ve discovered, I recognize my life. An endless back-and-forth between two states of being: on the one hand, expending vast amounts of energy and time grappling with huge, ultimately unanswerable questions that can feel at times like a whole lot of nothing. On the other hand, fleeing from the big questions to find the concrete, knowable things around me—taking pleasure in the repetitive labor of my bookstore job, or the same subway ride I take every day, or the meditative joy of doing dishes. But the big questions draw me back in, because it’s through asking them and struggling with them that I define myself.
My friends and I are 22, just out of college, and trying to start our careers in theater here in New York. We’re working more than full time combining low-paying odd jobs with whatever unpaid theater work we can get. We can look forward to several years of this, at least, before we build up the connections and experience enough to get paying gigs in theater and even then, for years to come—as some of the older professionals we’ve met have told us—we’ll most likely struggle to pay the bills.
But we’re doing it not only because we love it—which we do—but because it’s who we are. We’re theater kids. And I for one could not tell you with any certainty what theater is, if you asked me (a topic for a later post, perhaps), but we’re asking the question and trying to answer it every day. We just need to take a break to play bananagrams once in a while.
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