I’m embarrassed to talk about this, partly because I read Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner and he sort of ruined it for me, casting doubt on the idea that anyone can have “a profound experience of art.” But I’m pretty sure I had one. I was at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. On the third floor, in the Chapel room, there is a crude but luminous painting of a stained glass window in Notre-Dame, the Paris cathedral. I saw it and I felt stunned, along the following lines, although of course it happened in a flash, faster than language.
It matters that the painting was crude. Probably a flawed but important step in the development of a particular technique, or a minor work by a major artist, but not breathtaking in its own right. A more impressive painting would have been a distraction. Because what stunned me was the place. The two places. Here was the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a place renowned for its atmosphere—cracked pillars, opulent tiles, hot plants breathing the stale garden air. A place fixed in history, around the year 1903. A place consecrated, as Lincoln said of Gettysburg, by the enormous human labor and conviction that has been invested in it. And here was Notre-Dame—also renowned, also fixed in history, also consecrated. Through the window of this crude painting, two colossal human endeavors stood in conversation with each other.
I thought of a telescope that I read about, which allowed passersby in London to gaze upon passersby in New York City. I thought of a scene in The Two Towers when the beacons are lit and a chain of signal fires reaches across the entire continent. I thought of stories about how the search for meaning always leads elsewhere, always defers to something else, like If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino and Day for Night by Frederick Reiken; how, when we look at art, we’re really looking through it to something else, some other example of human labor and conviction. I thought of the window in Notre-Dame as an eye, looking inward and outward but always elsewhere. I had too many marvelous thoughts at once. Ben Lerner, if you’re listening, this is a profound experience of art.
Later I looked up the painting from the Isabella Stewart Garner Museum. It’s not Notre-Dame after all. Caught up in my own thoughts, I never bothered to read the description: The Interior of the Abbey Church of Saint Denis by Paul César Helleu. Does it matter if I saw something that wasn’t there?
– Brian Hurley