Here in NY, anyone with a little cash in their pocket can contemplate or even participate in the infinity-trials housed in any number of museums. At the Museum of Modern Art, for instance, we can wonder what it could take to overturn the infinity verdict on Demoiselles d’Avignon. We can opt for a different kind of edgy titillation than that offered by Picasso’s geometric come-ons: we can be part of the art, by taking a seat facing an actual living artist, Marina Abramovic, and maintaining silent eye contact with her for a length of time (well, we could have, because the presentation of evidence in this trial ended recently when the artist took herself away). Another large exhibit space in the museum offered a multi-media survey of Abramovic’s work. Videos of her exposing herself in different kinds of ways, photos, and living naked people employed as props (also silent) to play out Abramovic’s ideas about flesh/exposure/encounter/vulnerability/and so on.
Rainer Maria Rilke believed that
The creations of art always result from a state of having-been-in-danger, from an experience of having-gone-to-the-end, up to the point where no human can go any further. The further one ventures, the more proper, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes—finally, the art object is the necessary, irrepressible, most definitive expression of this singularity.
Marina Abramovic’s projects, indeed much of performance art, indeed plenty of contemporary art, seems to put the cart before Rilke’s horse. Rilke tells us that art is the necessary expression of the singularity of the artist’s experience of having-gone-to-the-end. In the case of an Abramovic, the artist manufactures an experience that is plainly transgressive or eccentric. What happens is an eat-your-cake-and-have-it-too transaction, where the singularity and the art object are one and the same and the distinctions between who is having the experience, and who is making the art, and who is witnessing the art are not easily made.
To me, what Marina Abramovic does by contriving the experience that another artist may express following the personal ordeal of being deeply transformed by having-gone-to-the-end, is an easy way out. The silences are vacuous and the encounters are obvious flauntings. I respect the philosophical underpinnings that set up a taste for lab-experiment art. I know that people think and feel deeply into and out of this work. But as for me, I like it better the other way round, Rilke’s way. I like it when the artist is a living crucible of experience that I can’t know, and then the artist becomes a master of the special language needed to communicate that experience right where it needs to go in the person who needs to know it.
Here’s a painting by Mark Rothko just above where Abramovic sat there and stared. The painting leads to a window, which seems just right. When you’re in front of the painting, you can’t tell which opens into more space, the painting or the window. That’s a lie–the painting wins. It opens into an impossible space inside the canvas, and opens a space inside the person engulfed by meeting this canvas. Its silence is a hush. Something in the space calls to you.
If you hear it. I watched the many people waiting on line to take turns staring at Marina Abramovic’s belabored blankness, and then I took the elevator up and Rothko’s canvases addressed me as they do, face to face, in a nearly empty gallery. I thought about silence and art and encounters and preferences and decided that Bob Dylan’s voice is much like Mark Rothko’s paintings. You get it or you don’t. Once you get it, you never un-get it, and you’re grateful for the company of other people who get it. Getting-it means finding yourself in a spacious and real place that is invisible.
Exhibit A is Highlands. The song is impossible. Against a lilting, simple and repetitive musical line, the singer describes loss of faith and desire, and he steals a lyrical Highlands from another poet–he has apparently lost invention as well as everything else–in order to soothe his pessimism and emptiness. The tune is hypnotic and the phrasing matches the rhythm closely enough to risk monotony. Monotony is avoided through the work we do to navigate the dark inner landscape of the lyrics, and monotony is also avoided through the shading of words, more than through Dylan’s bending the timing. The voice on the album version of this song gets across a bottomless loneliness. Every syllable is close and lit up as through a candle waxed in black. Everything is exactly the way that it seems, and every single vowel and consonant is set out one literal and meaningless pebble at a time. Insanity is smashing up against my soul seems a dreadful alternative to Donne’s “Batter my heart, three person’d God.” There is also the sound of self-mockery in real blonde or a fake, and in take it to a pawn shop. And then the dreamy highlands come alive in the blooming and the bluebells blazing. The singer’s wit hits no marks with the testy and out-of-reach waitress, and the man who leaves the restaurant hasn’t lost our attention, although he’s lonesome and still hungry. People in the park forgetting their troubles and woes. Everyone’s got troubles and woes, this singer is not solipsistic–there is trouble and woe for all humankind. But his bleakness paints a false idyll for himself–bluebells, honeysuckle, flowing waters– on the canvas of his forlornness, while other people make merry together in a simple city park. They are only bright-colored and good-looking stick figures, seen distantly. To our attention, they’re no match for the singer’s wit and imagination and truth-seeing But he’d trade places with anyof’em–and he slurs these syllables bitterly to show how cheaply he holds whatever he’s got against their generic youth–lookin so good, he draws out that phrase forever. The singer’s isolation is so strong it’s self-renewing–it has new eyes, but they see how far away the world is; and by the end of the song, the sun is breaking onto him, but it’s not the same one he remembers, and again, what is new for this singer is less and darker. And the self-imprisonment is relieved only by the imaginary bright space of wildwood air in the *borrowed* highlands. The I of TOOM’s Highlands is a door that repeatedly closes on itself. As listener, I feel helpless–I feel the singer’s restless unhappiness from my fixed point as he watches the world recede from him.
If you listen to one of the rare live Highlands (my favorite is from the Rock of Ages compilation), you hear something different. Dylan addresses an audience, and so the story’s drama is a shared experience. The voice emerges from a dark no-place in the album, but live, the aural space has the fullness of his listeners’ attention. Dylan’s voice is pushed higher by the music, the ends of lines drawn out just a touch, consonants less bitten off–but these distinctions are arbitrary and straw-grasping, there is a fresh consolation in the voice in the live performances. It’s easy enough to hear that the audience response turns the waitress scene into exactly the glorious hilarious game of double entendres it is–he milks those eggs and that pencil for everything they’ve got–so here, it’s the waitress who’s way out of the joke. The joke belongs to Dylan and his audience–that is easy for anyone to hear. Certainly, he leaves the restaurant still disheartened and still hungry. The world is still darkened and out of reach for him. His burden is no lighter. But the momentum of his story has a different urgency, and the world he’s apart from is now visible/audible/knowable to others. He’s telling it to live ears, and you can hear that in the voice. That is, either you can or you can’t.
When I look at the setlists for the tour that’s just started, I see that Dylan is doing more songs from center stage, nothing between him and the audience but the microphone and harmonica. If you’re lucky enough to attend any of these shows, think about the way your attention meets the song in that space between yourself and the singer. (Since I first wrote this, I’ve had the chance to hear the Athens 5/29 show–and his Hollis Brown from that night is just what I mean here. Find it and hear it.)