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12/08/2003 Archived Entry: "Anniversary of John Lennon's death/reflections on art"

IT'S THE 23RD ANNIVERSARY OF JOHN LENNON'S MURDER. Say what you want about his lifestyle, strange politics, or stranger choice of soulmate, he brought magic into the world. And magic drained out of the world with his blood.

Although I was never a big Beatles fan, I cried in my lover's arms that night, inconsolable and not really understanding why. A couple of my relatives died around the same time, and even though one of them died unexpectedly, I never even came close to shedding a tear for her. But for John Lennon ... I can still weep if I think too hard about that night in front of the Dakota.

I can still weep over Vincent van Gogh, too, for committing suicide at a mere 37, with so much insane beauty still inside him. I'm not usually sentimental about suicides. It's a choice; it was his life; he wanted out. But what the world lost when he left!

Van Gogh said:

I have a terrible lucidity at moments when nature is so beautiful. I am not conscious of myself anymore, and the picture come to me as if in a dream. It is no more easy to make a good picture than it is to find a diamond or a pearl. It means trouble, and you risk your life for it. I cannot help it that my paintings do not sell. The time will come when people will see that they are worth more than the price of the paint.

If you've only seen Van Gogh's paintings in books, on TV, or on the Web, you haven't really seen. You can't imagine. Long ago, I had the lucky fortune to go to an extensive exhibition of his works. The exhibition was arranged in chronological order, beginning with the dark, somber, monochromatic works of his Dutch period, moving into the delicate pastels of his Japanese period, then exploding -- there's no other word for it -- as he found his real self in his work, the paintings glowing ever brighter and almost bursting out of their canvases with color and vibrancy that no mere photograph could ever display. By comparison, the show catalog I carried as I walked around the galleries looked as if someone had left it to fade in the sun for a month; that's how its photographs paled beside the real paintings.

By the time I stood before "Crows in a Wheat Field" (one of his last, completed just days before his suicide) I was staggering, hardly able to stand before the aesthetic and emotional assault of this man's work. I stumbled out of the gallery and almost collapsed on a bench outside, crying and crying for the intense beauty and all the sorrow that drove it.

I still remember the light of Van Gogh, glowing like the sun.

I felt nothing when my father died, except relief that a not-very-nice man couldn't hurt anybody any more. But I can still cry for River Phoenix, gone so damn stupidly at 23, and James Dean, with his head nearly ripped off his shoulders at 24. To see them at work was to see something beyond beyond, something nobody else had. Nothing and nobody could replace their art. And Jim Morrison. Oh, don't even talk about Jim Morrison. I'm sure he was a double-dyed creep, but oh my was there ever another voice like that, a presence as powerfully, darkly present as his?

And the poet Shelley, also stupidly dead at 29 for egomaniacally taking an unstable, souped-up racing boat out in a storm. Now, you can know he was a double-dyed creep, along with his pal Lord Byron, dead at 36 in pursuit of heroic visions. But they, along with their pal John Keats, who barely made it to 25, brought something into the world that no unmourned mundane relative could have dreamed. I wouldn't want to live among such folk. Way too emotionally draining. But then, I didn't want to live among my relatives, either. Way too boring, between moments of violent panic.

But the artists lit the world in a way that goes far beyond anything anyone can say about the worth of their paints or their tapes, their reputations, or the resale value of their product. They make it possible for other sensitive souls to endure the world that they sometimes could not. Without artists of all sorts, life would be nothing but a Hobbesian nightmare -- solitary, brutish, and nasty, even if science managed to make it long, instead of short. Without the power of their insight, without their vision, without their words and tones and gestures to enlighten life, the world would be too bleak for some of us to bear.

Posted by Claire @ 06:04 AM CST

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