In the serene stillness of Gallery 910 in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, just steps away from the frenetic animation of Fifth Avenue, hangs a painting that possesses the ability to transport an ordinary human being right inside the paradisiacal velvet of a flower. Stare at it long enough and you begin to feel, rather than merely see, the very essence of the bloom as the luscious purple and fathomless black violet petals encircle your imagination, blotting out peripheral vision and ambient sound. Stare at it long enough, and you begin to see the world from a flower’s point of view. This is the magic of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Iris, a painting that provokes a deep recognition of the flower for which it is named, recognition both unexpected and profound. Such was the talent of Miss O’Keeffe. She reduced her subjects to their essential forms in order to allow us to see them anew, or perhaps really see them for the very first time.
Strangely enough, I first became aware of this ability of Georgia O’Keeffe through her interpretation of a very different subject. The charcoal drawing above is hers. An early work, and one I think I could have recognized without ever reading her explanation of the piece. As a sufferer of migraine headaches for most of my adult life, I knew, almost instinctively, that this was a painting of a headache. Which indeed it is. Cryptic, almost occult, the image is appropriately menacing. A river of black fire? A brain, sliced and laid bare, with its thoughts and ideas simmering? It was easy to tell that the artist responsible for this drawing understood a migraine at its very core. I have felt empathetic towards Georgia O’Keeffe ever since.
The capacity to enkindle and fan empathy is but one of the vital powers art has to make our lives more malleable and fine. Through fiction and music, painting and performance, we are better able to walk inside the shoes of others, despite our own perhaps limited experiences. Can an authentic empathy develop and be nurtured through art? I think it can. I have been fortunate in my time here on earth to never empirically know true desperation, but I have felt its heaviness resting on my shoulders as I journeyed to California with the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. I realized the heartbreak that can occur when one must choose honour over love when I read of Newland Archer’s fateful choices in The Age of Innocence. If one is truly open and interested in the lives of others, if one really wants to know how other hearts beat and other eyes see, art is not a bad place to begin.
The often callous words that have been spoken during the current nominating process for president here in this country have sometimes caused me to shake my head in disgust. For myself, it is disturbing when anyone states that they are “not concerned about the very poor”. But when that statement is expressed by a man seeking the highest office in the land, I shudder. Growing up wealthy, with all one’s needs more than mitt, I mean met, does not necessarily preclude empathy. It cannot be faked - the very attempt is cringe-worthy - but it may be cultivated if one has a willing heart. And of course, there is always art to help out the candidate if he is interested. For instance, there is currently an excellent revival of Death of a Salesman playing on Broadway. Anna Deavere Smith has a new play that tackles the issue of health care in America called Let Me Down Easy. For books, perhaps The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood or the wonderful new collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson called When I Was a Child I Read Books. And of course, I would most heartily recommend Lad, A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune.
What about you?
Has your mind ever be opened or changed by a work of art?
Has a painting or a piece of fiction ever gifted you with the type of recognition leading to empathy previously unfelt?