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The Journal of Aesthetic Education 37.2 (2003) 19-30
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A Reflection on Art Experience
I used to enjoy art. Not all the arts equally. Overall literature spoke to me most clearly. I am not sure exactly why. I guess some combination of inborn and learned dispositions. Whatever is the case, my enjoyment of literature always seemed natural to me, since literature was of a medium I already knew, the vocabulary and grammar of my own language. But I enjoyed paintings and musical pieces as well, some of which I shall never forget even though they have virtually faded from my life, from what I have become.
I cannot say that I ever had a favorite artwork. I have always thought the idea foolish, reminiscent of children who think often in terms of favorites, whether colors, candies, or friends. However, there are some works that do stand out in memory, even though, as I say, I cannot bring myself to enjoy them now. They are ghosts whose forms are discernible, but whose flesh is long gone.
I had read lots of literature. I even enjoyed the act and the atmosphere of reading. I remember the chair I sat in, the lighting, the room. I also used to love to wake up on weekends, eat a leisurely breakfast, and then get back into bed and read until noon. Of course the setting itself of reading was ultimately not crucial, it was merely a pleasant means of facilitating one's excursion into another world. It was the other world that counted. So many worlds. Of course, I entered joyfully the worlds of Shakespeare and Dante, which Harold Bloom recently has judged at the center of the Western canon, but I entered also lesser but personally not less significant worlds to which I was drawn. 1 I needed some tutoring in Shakespeare and Dante because they did not quite speak my language, my twentieth-century American tongue. I had trouble negotiating their worlds. However, I had none whatsoever when it came to the worlds of James Joyce, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Graham Greene, Walt Whitman, T.S.Eliot, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, or Joseph Conrad. I was at home in these worlds, different [End Page 19] worlds, but nonetheless home. I loved Conrad's the "Heart of Darkness." For me this was one of the truly haunting tales. After my first reading of the "Heart of Darkness," I can honestly say, my life was changed. I neither talked nor walked the same. I moved among and around people and things differently. I saw myself differently both among others and when I would stand before my mirror alone. And subsequent readings brought about further changes, changes of my comportment in the world. I imagined that I saw, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled the details from the beginning of that story to its very end. I sat on the deck of the Nellie with Marlow, Conrad's character narrator, and his listeners. I watched with them as the sun went down over the Thames. I followed Marlow as he told the story of how he had "set off for the center of the earth," up the Congo perhaps where in his mind all human life had its source; how as he came closer to the center facts became less straightforward, the greed for ivory, the "flavor of mortality in lies," the hollowness of Mr. Kurtz, the final horror of it all. I sweated in the heat of the "Heart of Darkness." Like any experience of a masterpiece, the "Heart of Darkness" was a visceral experience for me. After such experiences one feels emotionally and physically drained. One feels comfort in thinking, as with a dream, it was not real. And yet there is a lingering discomfort: as it were no mere fantasy at all.
I often had feelings of the same intensity and profundity in respect to painting and music. They, too, were worlds for me. I enjoyed the varioustouches of the painters. In particular, I enjoyed the gold, the...