The Art of Being Sick
Mikhail Nesterov, A Sick Girl, 1928
It's that time of the year when one morning you're going to wake up with your ears, nose and throat full of somebody else's germs... and not in a good way (if there is one). Cold-and-flu season is not the most popular for obvious reasons--though honestly, hurricane season is the one that really scares the snot out of us. (At least this year, there's no H1N1 to knot things up ever worse.)
While winter offers a certain kind of comfort with those drizzly, rainy days that rainy-day activities like going to a museum or arts and crafts at home are made for, getting sick can put a serious hamper on engaging with anything. So here's a post for all the vectors out there who are feeling a little too distant from the world of art. You see, being sick is not so different from actually being a work of art...
Can't Touch This Once you get past the whole "fire will burn you" lesson of toddlerhood, the world of untouchable objects quickly divides into two broad categories: things that will make you sick and things that are seriously expensive. We haven't really seen that change too much as we moved from adolescence into adulthood, despite the best efforts of this state's frightening idea of sex-ed. When you actually get sick yourself (what did you touch!) the tables turn and you become, for better or worse, untouchable to the rest of the world. The thrill of actually getting to "call in sick" to work is only a consolation prize compared to the used-Kleenex monument to snot soon to be constructed at your bedside. "Stay home, rest, and take care of yourself" roughly translates to "stay the hell away from me and everyone I care about."
Similarly, when you visit a museum, you are the leper. The oils on your hands, the unclipped fingernails, the clumsiness so clearly exuded in your gait, the caustic gases you exhale -- why, you could practically peel the paint off a fire hydrant -- or at least that's how you're supposed to feel, or how it feels like you're supposed to feel (we've never really thought to ask). You're lucky they let you in at all. If art could talk we imagine it would want to tell you that all the chemicals and cells sloughing off your slowly decaying life-husk must not approach the quarantined zone of its ageless beauty. We especially like to imagine Robert Gober's hairy cheese saying that in the voice of Elmer Fudd.
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Color Matters It might seem uncouth, but when you blow your nose or cough and spit, it's good to know the hue of what you've ah-chooed. Color will tell you a lot about how your immune system is faring, or failing to fare, in its war on bugs. Philosopher Paul Grice made a whole argument for the categorization of "natural meaning" and "non-natural meaning" using the example "these spots mean measles." Opening up the Kleenex is kind of like cracking open a fortune cookie. "This red booger promises you great fame...a new disease will be named in your honor shortly after you die." Painters, of course, like to inspect the thick fluids of color they so intently squeeze out, as well, though whether their meaning sustains outside of linguistic/socio-historical framing is up for debate. Which reminds us of the old joke: "Paul Grice, a doctor, and a fortune-cookie writer are all looking at a Rothko painting..." You know the rest.
They think you're faking it ...
Everybody Has An Opinion One of the aspects we enjoy most about museum visits is eavesdropping in on what others are saying about the art. As the reactions vary from cynical scoffs and faux academic theses up to interpretations that are nothing more than thinly-veiled projections of personal problems, the pieces of art become welcome mats for all sorts of theories, justified or not. But since the museum isn't a place for loud public discussion, there are no eruptive arguments or debates on who is right. Everyone gets their say and then continues on their way. Playing art critic is a lot like playing doctor. Heresay, family legend, the class you took in college, things you read on the internet, a show you saw on TV--these are all valid sources of information for either such fake careers. Our favorite diagnosis on both accounts: "I think he's faking it." Not to mention how much everybody knows about how to "make it better." Drink this, eat this, wash this, rent this movie, read this book, add some shading to his left arm, erase that part, make it orange here, add more cowbell. Everyone's a critic in the clinic.
Edvard Munch, The Sick Child, 1896
Oh, The Humanity Maybe it's the fact that every movie or book about utopian societies has always made a point of showing how off-putting it all can be, but we get a creepy feeling if we try to imagine a world without sickness--a world of efficient, tireless humans. Not to glorify suffering or to propose putting an end to cancer research, but life is going to continue to leave its droppings even as it walks forward into the future. Art, some say, began as a way for humans to cope with its fears and uncertainties (like, say, about utopian futures) and imagining a world without art is indeed unsettling. Imagining the art of a world without sickness, we just think of Thomas Kinkade. Worried yet? Keep sniffling, dammit.
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