Certain paintings, or rather certain books of reproductions of paintings, have a very particular flavor when I remember them from my youth. George Grosz comes to mind. James Ensor. Seeing these books— they both lived in the wooden crates that held up the television—at seven or eight years old was a terrifyingly exciting experience.
These artists put real horror into their work, yet both also managed a very nearly sublime quality. Not, as I am remembering, the Romantic Sublime rooted always in fear. The feeling they have for me is of that which presses up to the unbearably beautiful and then slips through, past the curtain of this world, into the unboundedness of a sublime that is closer to the space between Rilke’s trees than Kant’s safely distant violent seas.
Why should it be that a child would have seen these things—the horrible off-color drawings of Grosz (both by palette and by content), the out of control carnivalesque grotesqueries of Ensor (filled with their sense of static collapse)— why these things should be remembered by me as being so madly beautiful at an age where something more…naïve… might have been more suitable? Yet this is how it comes when I close my eyes. Of course, I loved childish things, too. Those are remembered in other places, in other stories for other moments. This story is about something else.
I cannot say if I am only broadcasting backwards in time to attach these affects to that child on the rug by the television staring into books of art that perhaps should have been, but were not, forbidden to me; or whether there might have been some genuine foreshadowing at play. I certainly grew from there into a darkly cynical, though oddly loving, teenager. And from there into a practiced alcoholic and committed junkie, as well a painter, poet, and half-earnest student of philosophy. Could the years of drink and heroin have been read in the small child lying in thrall of Christ’s Entry into Brussels or Skeletons Fighting for the Body of a Hanged Man? In my memory of love for George Grosz’s corpselike whores and bloated death-worn dandies, could there be seen the early ghosts of the family I would later gather to me—and be gathered by in equal measure—in that other world which hides in plain sight among the goings on of this American life?
Maybe it was only a reflection of the home I lived in that I sought solace in scenes of horror and violence displayed as objects of sacred beauty. (Art, in that home, was absolutely held to be Sacred. I remember my father’s fury when he caught me “mocking” one of Beethoven’s Symphonies that was being played on the radio. I was sitting on my knees in front of the small portable radio miming the conductor in what I imagined was deep reverence when he snatched me off the floor, carried me roughly to my room, and slammed me onto my bed so hard that I bounced, denting the plaster wall with my head. The wall was later repaired, though badly— it held the scar of that moment for the rest of the years I spent there. It’s not hard to imagine what defacement, even accidental, of an art book would have brought down.)
I remember the light of that room while I turned through those books. Always an indirect glow from an early summer evening sun, coming through the rear widows of our third-floor apartment. On the walls all around my father’s own canvases (and one charcoal by my mother), everyone in dark or muted blues and greys, color used so tactically and sparingly. The whole room looks in my memory soft and slightly bled of brightness, lurking just this side of some curtain in its quiet, safe-for-the-moment cocoon.
The rug I sat on was worn and intricate. The books feel so peaceful on it. And looking up out of those books, the off-color so barely controlled images spoke something to me in a language that I did not know but understood somehow nevertheless.
There is a disturbing sensuality in both, maybe more in the Grosz, that must have colored my pre-sexual sexual self with the idea that any passion should contain within itself a measure of violence—but also that this violence need not be destructive; it could be expressed in a loving, caring, and generative way. Again, this may have arisen as a necessary antidote to the very real violence—much of it sexualized—that lived in the apartment with us.
What I miss now, what I missed then, is intimacy. And art is intimacy. All art. It can’t not be. To say something hidden and to share it with some other is an intimate act. It can be sensual and sexual, and it can be none of these things. And yes, it can sometimes be violent. But it is always intimate.
What does it mean to understand an intimate violence? This does not—cannot— include violence that moves only in one direction from some subject to some object, for in this kind of relationship there is never an intimacy. But there can be, there is, a kind of subject to subject reciprocal violence that moves between and binds. And this intimate violence can be loving and caring and generative.
This is the measure of so much art.
To look upon the pages of a book and feel oneself torn wide. To be bloodied by the distant-static words of a page sent from some others’ hand to our eye. And to return this violence. To tear back at the page, to try to gut the words as they lash up at us. To do this in the shelter of one’s room, wrapped in the dark, feeding meanly on the pulp and ink of some strange and intimate thing.
And to lay in the light with another human beside you, naked but not sexual. (There can be there moments that are sexual, but for now I am dreaming of something else.) To not speak, to not move, to not even touch—but to be in an unspeakable intimacy. This too is art. And this too can be a softer violence; to be taken apart at one’s seems and appearances. To be flensed and seen.
But listen! Please! It is not all violence and there are beauties and sublimes—loves —that are intimate and only loving without the touch of madnesses that grew on old carpets in the late summer sun as pictures of people who hurt and were hurt looked longingly from the page. There is such a thing as tender.
There is art in the world that is made and unmade. There is intimacy without violence. There is to hold and be open. There are kisses left that make one smile even years after they are gone. I would make an art that could be such a kiss to you.
I would tell you that I love you and have it mean nothing more than that.
I love you.
William Moseman Sinclair