The other week I was looking for a quote that would go along the lines of “throw away art, the greatest gallery of all is the natural world (God’s creation, etc.).” I have no doubt that Emerson, Thoreau or Whitman said something like that, but I wasn’t able to put my hands on an exact statement, so I moved on. Well, I’m more or less living that kind of thing right now, spending some time in Alaska. The physical land is the overwhelming presence here. There are probably very good artists at work in the state, but the population is small and the landscape is so spectacular that I imagine it can swamp much of the hunger for art. I spent today (Saturday) in Denali National Park and am going back in tomorrow. It is grandiose and beautiful (perhaps we should say sublime). It causes you to change the way your eyes see detail and distance. Compared to other environments it is empty. Relatively few birds for instance. But this makes you highly attuned to the birds you do see. The tree coverage is thin – no trees over large expanses, and the trees that do grow are smaller and thinner than most places. But this means you can make out the shapes of the land more clearly. Space is not so packed with visual events, so you mistake distances. Someone points out a wolf to you and your eye looks for something much bigger because you can’t quite get your head around how far away a bit of land is. The greatest thing Denali has to offer (and Alaska too to a great extent) is a chance to be alone. It is a trail-less park, so you walk where you want except some areas closed due to protection of wildlife ranges. There’s a single road in and out. Walk away from the road, and you can separate yourself from anyone else. The park is so big that it can absorb people. The chance to occupy a large bit of space by yourself for some time is a gift.
When I have an experience of a place like Alaska or Denali, I am aware of the fact that so many other people have experience of the place that is older, deeper, of longer standing and more personal significance that my initiate’s reaction of exhilaration at seeing the park’s space, scale, shapes, and colors. There can be a competition among people for who has the heavier connection to a place. Some people are real Nashvillians (or Chicagoans, or Alaskans, or whatever). In fact there is always someone who is more of the place than you, making you feel like a poseur. Their love is greater and richer. So although you encounter a place in the isolation of personal experience, and feel moved in a way that seems singular, if you talk to people the stories start coming in, and someone will make your experience seem to pale.
This process occurs with works of art as well. We have our personal experience of art, and feel like we took something away from that encounter that changed us and has great significance. But there are always people out there who seem to be trying to show that you do not know the work as well as they. Art writers of all sorts, academic and otherwise (like yours truly) are obvious culprits.
I believe there is a desire to own a work of art, and a desire to own a place. A kind of competitiveness of knowing. It is great to think that you might really know more about something than anyone. At one time I had that sense, after preparing an analysis of the Emerson movement from Ives’ Concord Sonata for my undergraduate oral exam. At the time (a long time ago) I really felt I had cracked this piece, and I hadn’t seen any analysis that I thought went into the same depth. So that raised the possibility that I might have actually gotten further with a piece than most everyone. But I’m not a pianist, and there would be those who had performed the piece. Almost any of them could make a case that they understand it better, although I know at the time I would have argued against that in many cases.
The anxiety to know and feel more probably has up sides and down sides, like everything. As a critic, I know I often don’t really want to hear other people’s ideas about a piece or an artist. I just want them to share my excitement in my own observations. That’s a pretty crappy way to operate in the world, and requires conscientious effort to actually hear people. On the other hand, the desire to know more creates some of that free market effect of pushing people, or at least certain kinds of people, to go farther. What would it take for me to have that sense again, that I understood even one piece of music a bit better than almost anyone else?
I have pretty good Alaska experiences. I come up here from time to time. It’s on business, so I get to know a lot of Alaskans in the process. I can recount their stories. I share work with them. I come at different times of the year. So I can feel superior to a mere tourist. But there’s all those people who came and stayed, and many others for whom Alaska is a persistent, tantalizing and motivating dream, longing for a visit or to stay “if only I could figure out a way.” I have no town or place to which I have the claim that comes close to superseding all others. In the end, maybe outside of the most compulsive and single-minded in their devotion to a place, artist, experience, the tourist and dilettante are people’s natural roles.