This time, flipping through a glossy magazine, I confess to myself a sensation I’ve often experienced in the realm of the fine arts. It’s a consciousness I first associated with the hush of large museums, a rarified atmosphere that could well be pressurized. There’s a degree of trespass, moving from the everyday world into this temple, and an expectation of awe.
The museum itself could be dedicated to history or natural science or even military technology. We speak softly, walk slowly, reflect and absorb impressions.
There would appear to be similarities to religion in the expectation of awe or the ephemeral. These are holy places, consecrated and set apart. They are cathedrals built to preserve sacred relics — not just any bones or works, then, but all those who have advanced the cause. There are rituals, as well, in the progression through exhibit spaces or the celebratory openings. There’s also a sense of the departed, as though wandering through a cemetery; here the memorial names are included as donors of objects, rooms and wings, or endowments, in addition to the artists or high priests themselves. But there are differences, as well: where religion has at its core what is eternal, timeless, and righteous in the eyes of God, art often strives for a sense of progression, which fosters curiosity, novelty, play, even a touch of shock or scandal. Where religion imposes ethical behavior, art frequently excuses or even encourages the practitioner in indiscretions. In both, though, there’s an expansion of one’s field of awareness, however brief, and a moment of personal renewal and refreshment before resuming one’s usual activities.
These spaces are not just those for visual reflection. A concert hall, playhouse, or theater has similar dimensions. We settle in, become quiet, and the house lights go down as the stage lights brighten. We show reverence and appreciation by applauding at appropriate moments. Newcomers are initiated in the customs.
Layers of wealth and breeding also appear. The institutions typically originate in noblesse oblige. The patrons reserve box seating or receive invitations to openings, private showings, or galas. Members and subscribers enjoy their own privileges. Smaller spaces, such as art galleries, chamber music settings, or poetry readings extend the experience. Libraries, as well, can be seen in this light. The sensation often recurs when I’m handling a thick, refined, costly literary quarterly — one printed on carefully selected paper and published with an eye for expert, balanced typography. (Sometimes the work presented becomes secondary to the presentation.)
We might speak of the thoughts and emotions that arise in these encounters. The space of art can be acknowledged in one’s own life, then. We observe, but don’t touch. We listen, but don’t speak. We’re voyeurs who do not taste what’s on a plate before us. Here, in public places, we visit our own private musings. There is an outward uselessness in it, ultimately. Time in these spaces does not add to our wealth, our table, or the usefulness of our apparel. It does not transport us physically from one place to another, although it may do that in our imaginations. What does happen is our moving from our animal roots into uniquely human possibilities.
For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.