What would you do if, while in a foreign city halfway across the world, you saw a fellow museum patron—also an alien but perhaps from some other elsewhere than you—burst into tears before a classic painting, who was presumably (or trying to make you presume that he was) having a “profound experience of art”? You’d think, at least fleetingly, that his behavior was totally bogus, a put on, right? The Midwest native Adam Gordon doesn’t just see it as bogus, as anyone might. He makes a milestone and a life out of the possibility that sobbing museum patrons aren’t, or can’t be, part of the world as we see it. We can’t live as though there aren’t other patrons around us in the echoing halls of a museum, either because we don’t deserve to or simply haven’t yet earned the right. Maybe a profound experience of art, as Adam Gordon sees it, is knowing that it might be impossible to have one quite as we envision it, and that a truly profound moment must take us by surprise. We can’t know what form it’s going to take if it’s enough, when it comes, to move us.
What is a museum guard to do, I thought to myself; what, really, is a museum guard? ON the one hand you are a member of a security force charged with protecting priceless materials from the crazed or kids or the slow erosive force of camera flashes; on the other hand you are a dweller among supposed triumphs of the spirit and if your position has any prestige it derives precisely from the belief that such triumphs could legitimately move a man to tears.
But even further and more to the point, would we know if we ourselves were creating art worthy of profound experience? Ben Lerner’s central character in Leaving the Atocha Station, his first novel, is the brilliant poet Adam who, through first-person narration, never lets us stop to consider the idea that he may be something special, because he feels like a fraudulent recipient of his foundation’s prestigious Madrid poetry fellowship. Are we allowed to see the merit in Adam’s poetry if he himself doesn’t? If even Adam as writer/creator believes that we’re all just appreciative of his art so that we may project our own interpretations onto it, are we allowed to believe, in turn, that we love it for what it is and not just for what we see? Continue reading