My friends and I once snuck into an apartment with a terrace and an incredible view. Right by the bed were an entire wall and a ceiling of windows, looking right at the Manhattan skyline. I couldn’t swallow whole the thought of eight million lives clumped into this particular geographic location. I was so sure that I would have been absolutely overwhelmed and depressed if I were to sleep in that room every night.
The lights making out the shape of skyscrapers, every little part placed there by human needs, would be right in front of your eyes as you stay lying on your bed. They would be like stars, only much smaller, measly, and human; but precisely because they are so infinitely more comprehensible. Can you even contain the thought of a blistering ball of flames ninety-three million miles away, yet fueling the entirety of your life, that of each person you know, don’t know, or might have known, all the trees, nectarines, little worms crawling on leaves, our old friends with curved hands named naledi, butterflies in South Africa, midges in Antarctica, viruses the size of your skin cells, the algae blob, shellfish, crocodiles, your dog, birds in the Galapagos and their great great great great great great grandmas we affectionately call dinosaurs, and everything else on this planet you can attempt to imagine? Would you try and pretend to understand ten trillion galaxies with a hundred billion such stars, some of them a thousand times bigger than our Sun? But there is no need to be paralyzed with awe here. I am only talking about a tiny group of people within the distance you can conceivably cover on foot, those who are breathing out air and pumping fresh blood - their simple, insignificant selves like your own.
Yet I said to my friends, I was positive that I would have been crushed by the weight of my own thoughts and anxiety if I were to stare and be stared at by these lights. Driving by the airport at night, the enormous collection of lights lined up along the runways makes me want to cry, somewhat confusingly. As they become distant, isolated from the rest of dimly blinking towns with sleeping people, I imagine hearing them brightly screaming: we are here, we have built this, we have put in our collective thoughts and sweat and knowledge into this to guide our way home. They do this as if protesting that we are not just a speck of dust in the uncaring universe. Did we invent lights to imitate stars?
Art does a lot of things, but one of the wonderful things it does to me is tuning into this kind of "oh my god, I’m going to cry" feeling that probably could qualify as a “spiritual” experience. And I truly believe it can be experienced anywhere, caused by anything, depending on the person and their brain chemistry. If we can all take our time - every person in the neighborhood, regardless of their profession, economic standing, education, cultural background, and so on - to feel these feelings together everyday, I don’t think we would have needed what we call art as much as we have. I think the culture of art is the product of efforts to articulate the feelings we find to be unexplainable, awe-inspiring, or bigger than ourselves (and a good chunk of art history is people assigning them different names that are better than mine.) Philip Guston, in his essay, said he prefers having poets in his studio rather than painters. As a visual artist who also finds poets very pleasant, this makes sense to me. Poets and painters do the same thing, but they can each get caught up with the superficialities of their choice of discipline. On the other hand, I find it a bit wonderful that some people can be so passionate about something that others do not even notice. Who else cares about how Rembrandt understood light and handled paint as a material? Who else spends hours flipping through a Pantone color book just talking about colors? But also, really, how many people get overwhelmed by the metaphor of the construction of city lights as human civilization? What I know is that when I discover there are some who do, it will be heartwarming and humbling. And that’s what art does to me.