Sunday, December 13, 2009

Polynesia, or, in case I want a sandwich

To be clear, I know nothing much about art, but I like to look at paintings and sculpture. I know enough, though, to resist reading artwork through the lens of biography. Except in the case of Paul Gaugin.

Each time I see one of Gaugin's paintings, I think of the fact of him leaving his wife and five children in order to paint. This may seem a judgmental thought, although I don't feel that way thinking it. But the thought repeatedly occurs to me. That he left his wife and children is a fact. That he was driven to paint is a fact. The combination of circumstances that led him to do both, or the machinations of his thoughts as he moved, inexorably, toward doing so, are not available to me. I had thought he left his family in France and ran off to Polynesia, but, no, he left them in Denmark to move back to France and paint. Later, he relocated to Polynesia.

Maybe the style of Gaugin's paintings triggers that thought, or the subject matter. Or perhaps a combination of the two. Figures and objects outlined in black, opaque color, often unshaded, unsubtle, fills in the outlines. Cartoons, really. Sophisticated cartoons. Anime. Figures in dreams: real and yet at the same time, flat. In the painting, Polynesia is a world behind a sheer curtain separating my reality from, if not Gaugin's reality, then his imagination and what it makes "real" or available to the senses.

Gaugin's world is not my world, suffice to say. Would I love to be there? Of course. Throw it all over and leave for Polynesia. Everyone has their own version of Gaugin's Polynesia--a place behind the curtain of the imagination, an escape hatch, a release from the strictures of society. Was Gaugin immoral to abandon his family for art? Was he irresponsible? I don't know. Once a person has reached that level of greatness, he or she becomes one with the art itself. Facts of biography that crumble off that edifice are simply detritus. Perhaps he thought of his paintings as his other family, the way many artists do, the way childbirth is often invoked as a metaphor for the production of art. In this way, we might see him as torn between two moral structures, two pillars of responsibility. Gaugin illuminates, incandescently, the artist's responsibility to the work above all else. Because making the choice was so stark and because he came to that choice later in life.

The white space between responsibility and freedom draws my attention every time.

A week or two ago, I engaged in a frustrating, half-finished conversation with close friends about healthcare reform. One of those three-way conversations that takes place in a car, multiple interruptions, and reaches its apex just as you all arrive at your destination, where you are expected, and at which point curtailing the conversation is a natural occurrence. The kind of conversation that yields unexpected comments that anticipate a context that is never reached.

My own position, naturally, was that healthcare reform was greatly needed, that people were going broke, that affording payments for a long-term, chronic illness was financially debilitating, that something should be done. My friend felt the cost of healthcare reform was too high--who was going to pay for all of this? No one in America wants to pay the taxes that would support reform. People with disabled children just go broke, that's what you do, she said. (The chance to explain to her, in detail, that she was paying for it already, regardless, was curtailed.)

As I mentioned earlier, fully understanding what she meant is not available to me. The conversation has slipped behind the curtain and resides with all half-finished conversations in a room by itself with no doors or windows.

But, of course, I had to spend some time wondering. I had been arguing for personal freedom--the ability to stand on my own two feet, reconnect with the world, enact my value as a person--all of which involves recognizing a need for a societal support structure. I know I am not free. Of this I am sure, and it puzzles me that people think they are free.

Instead, I was made to feel that, indeed, I was on a sinking ship and the life rafts were gone. And it was most natural and understandable that the ship would continue to sink (hopefully the waters were not too icy) and slip below the glassy surface of what passes for reality for others. And my friends would wave to me as it happened.

What makes sense, given the situation, is high-tailing it to Polynesia.

I could launch into a stream of rhetoric. I could talk about the fact that parents of disabled children are not in a position to make "choices" about the healthcare of their children. Deciding against a treatment or device or therapy that could make Robert better is both irresponsible and immoral. And, perhaps, illegal. When a child is sick or disabled, parents cannot engage in behavior that appears to be neglectful. It is, indeed, illegal to neglect a child. Which brings me back, rather quickly, to the going broke part. That I live in a country that expects me to make such decisions--between my own welfare and that of my child, between the welfare of my disabled child and that of my typical child--astounds me on a regular basis.

The responsibility is crushing. The divorce rate is high. The suspicion that people you know are deeply engaged with their personal freedom(s) at the expense or on the back of your own inescapable responsibility is, frankly, nauseating.

And this is how I came to realize that I am, in fact, an American. After all my mental writhing about moving to Canada. I've come to see the whining about taxes as the white space between responsibility and freedom--the Polynesia of my fellow Americans. A cartoon world in which Nebraska has tropical beaches and no one has to work. And, frankly, I demand my imaginary plane ticket as well.

Reading Joan Didion, I came across this: "the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things money can buy nor power for power's sake [. . .], but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove Americans to the Pacific, all through the nineteenth century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one's own rules."


Dale said...

Well, that's the thing: we're paying for it anyway. The choice is between getting our money's worth and being cheated.

But -- that's not what this post is about, I know. I don't know how to respond to this, except to say, I hear you. And that I think being a decent person is way more important than being a great artist. If it weren't Gauguin, somebody else would fill his slot: we'd just promote some other lesser Great to be a Great Great, and everything would go on as before.

Anyway. I wish you had the support you need. And I wish I could read the poems you would write if you did.

Elizabeth said...

You could always model yourself after Wallace Stevens and trudge each day to your job at the insurance company.