When I was little, growing up in Las Vegas, I liked to name the colors I saw outside. I had the jumbo box of Crayolas, and I reacted almost synesthetically when they named the colors right. Cerulean made me tingle. It was blue like I’d never seen before, blue like they don’t have in the desert or even in the ocean off Mission Beach, and the name was like the fairytale kingdoms that I used to write stories about in my piles of spiral notebooks. Asparagus made me nauseous and so did its eponym (and anyway, jungle green was the only green that mattered). Robin’s-egg blue was pretty but predictable; razzmatazz was cheap and trashy.
When my aunt used to visit from Santa Barbara we’d walk slow through the Red Rock and name every color we saw. It was how I tolerated the Mars-red desert, so beautiful and alien from my fluorescent everyday that I could hardly stand it. This is still how I respond to beauty: I feel it overtake me and then I want to make it mine. Looking isn’t enough. I want to bottle the second act of Giselle and eat the vista of fir trees that blanket the German Alps and stash the gold foil of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in my pocket for later.
I started taking ballet classes because I thought it would make me feel how I felt when I watched the Nevada Ballet dancers in their tutus on the stage at the university. (It did, and once every two years when I take class nowadays it still does, even when I catch sight of myself in the mirror and remember that like Jody Sawyer, I wasn’t born with turnout.) Dance gave me what I lost from music after a prodigiously talented sixth-grader swooped in and stole the first chair from me in the Becker Middle School orchestra. I was all set to be indignant, but then he started to practice Bach’s Cello Suites, and I forgot for a moment what anger even was. I don’t suppose there was much I could do to come back from the shame of being in the middle school orchestra but even so, I was unwilling to risk it by doing something so gauche as actually watching him, so instead I looked at my shoes and flicked my eyes leftward every so often to peek at him hunched over his cello, sawing and swaying like it was part of his body.
I wanted to play like that too and sometimes when I practiced, when no one was home, I would try to sway my body along with “La Cinquantaine.” But it didn’t work for me. The music didn’t live in my bones like it lived in his. I swallowed the desire and stared at my shoes and told my friends stories about “Weird Cello Boy” who moved his body in time with his bow like he was possessed. That was the same year I started ballet in earnest and in time, I began to feel the beauty I craved in my bones.
I see a lot of beautiful things these days. I live in Europe now, and one of my favorite things to do in a new city is to visit its museums. I grew up with a print of “Starry Night” on my bathroom wall, and I was nine when the Bellagio hotel opened in my hometown of Las Vegas and I saw Monets from Steve Wynn’s collection for the first time. Las Vegas is a grim place to learn about beauty, but the Bellagio was a game-changer. I had never seen simple rooms like the ones the Impressionists painted, wood floors and iron bedposts and windows that flung open onto vistas of endless corn.
I drank it in and then puberty hit and I forgot all about visual art, losing myself instead in the sweet release of dance. Then a decade later at Vassar, I steered clear of art history because it was the domain of the lank-haired girls with New York private school pedigrees and coke habits (also, I was afraid I’d fall asleep every day). Today I can’t get enough. Travel can be overwhelming and art compresses it into something I can understand.
I thought a lot about art and how I digest it when I was reading what turned out to be my favorite book from last year, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. The protagonist Selin is a college freshman and the book is mostly about her experiencing sublimity for the first time. Life becomes overwhelming, and art (and semiotics) compresses it into something she can understand.
I remember vividly how the raw emotion of young adulthood, the wringer of heartbreak, betrayal, watching the US bomb the shit out of the Middle East, etc., gave way to realizing other people felt those emotions too, and that art was what they did to make them manifest. I nearly lost my mind several times during AP English my senior year of high school. I tucked a printout of “Good Country People” into the back of a textbook to read during a lecture I found boring, and I was so overcome by the ending that I got up from my desk and walked down the hall to find my English teacher and flap my arms at her until she sent me back to class. This teacher also read us “The Hollow Men” out loud one day and I remember that she looked almost sly during the final lines, as if she knew already what she’d see when she looked up after the end (“not with a bang, but a whimper”). I guess she’d been teaching for long enough to expect twenty slack-jawed seventeen-year-olds looking at her like she’d just elucidated, I don’t know, string theory. It was 2006. We were bombing Iraq and life was very long besides. We were all too aware of the Shadow.
Years later, I learned the word “sublime.” I don’t know philosophy well and maybe I’m perverting the definition, but this is how I think of sublimity, as my urge to shake myself free of what “Good Country People” means about humanity or my fear that the silence following “The Hollow Men” would never end.
I had forgotten about the idea of the sublime until I read The Idiot. There’s a scene where Selin and her friend Svetlana, who are eighteen or nineteen, take up standing in front of paintings for thirty minutes at a stretch. It’s the kind of thing I used to do as a child — I recall distinctly sitting on the toilet for far longer than I needed to stare at that “Starry Night” print on the wall opposite — and the kind of thing I’ve forgotten to do now that I’m an adult, and busy, and living in a time when everything is ephemeral (the algorithmic timeline) but nothing disappears (the LiveJournal whose password I’ve forgotten). I think about my taste more than I act on it, and I’m ashamed by how I’ve gone to some fifteen European museums in the past year and yet all I want to do is beeline to the paintings that look most like Monet.
Last summer I went to a Picasso exhibit at the Louisiana Museum north of Copenhagen, next to the sea at Humlebæk. It was mostly his ceramics, and they were charming and I sent photos to my friend who likes when human faces appear on inanimate objects, but I was more interested in the tiny photos of his blue paintings on the timeline of his life pasted to the wall in one of the side rooms. If I had gone to the Picasso Museum when I visited Paris last year instead of spending 45 minutes in line for a galette across the street at Cafe Breizh, I might already have known about his “Blue Period.” In my defense, it was a really good galette, and I had already been through the emotional wringer of walking through Shakespeare & Co. to the sound of some hipster playing The Killers (the default soundtrack for every Las Vegas whose youth was a) misbegotten and b) in the early 2000s) on one of the bookstore pianos and then leaving only to see Notre Dame rising above the Seine through a strand of Edison-bulb Christmas lights, and I think maybe if I’d seen the Blue Period at that juncture I might have had to Javert myself straight off the Pont-Neuf.
The Blue Period paintings remind me of when I traveled to New Zealand for business in 2015. I was in a blue period of my own, and for two weeks I went jogging every morning along the Oriental Bay listening to Halsey and Sia. The water was the cerulean blue I only ever saw in crayons as a child, and that Halsey song “Colors” kept looping on my Spotify (“everything is blue, his pills, his hands, his jeans”). It was synchronistic, and poignant, and I felt grateful to have seen cerulean in real life but in utter disarray nonetheless.
Later I was ashamed to have been so sent by the synchrony between a teenager’s pop song and the ocean, which is probably the most pedestrian natural thing you can find to be moved by. I was ashamed again, in Humlebæk, to be ignoring Picasso’s little-seen, avant-garde ceramics so I could wax emotional over something so literal as blue standing in for sadness. And I’m ashamed every time I try and fail to make eye contact with a Basquiat or one of those wacky Pop Surrealist paintings that give me nightmares.
But lately, I’ve felt inclined to treat myself more generously. I feel so anxious to take in all the culture that Europe has to offer while I live here that I trot through museums staring at paintings that make me ill instead of standing like I want to in front of Woman with a Parasol until I will myself into a field in Argenteuil. Reading about Selin and Svetlana reminded me that I can still access the sublime, and that to do so requires giving myself over to it. There’s no point in giving myself over to something that doesn’t move me and no use in trying to be moved by something for the sake of performing sophistication.
I have also wanted lately to put away my camera and to feel sublimity in my bones again, not through a lens, to listen to what my body tells me about beauty rather than to try to measure it in likes. I put on my ballet slippers for the first time in a few years the other week and eased my way through a barre, and I remembered how it felt to be giving beauty back to the world.
I guess we’re all feeling this these days, in our collective awakening to the destructive forces of technology. I don’t think taking photos to satisfy the hunger that beauty evokes in me is any better or worse than naming the colors I see in the desert. It’s all just one means after another of negotiating my place in the world, and I’d argue that even looking at the world through my cracked iPhone lens I’m still better off than this French art thief who tried to cat burgle his way into taming his hunger for the sublime. Though Lord help me the next time I’m in Paris if I’m feeling as delicate as I was the last time. Give me another dose of acoustic piano, Camembert crepes, Gothic cathedrals, and my favorite Crayola crayon color that also reminds me of being 25 and heartsick and I might just have to grab the “Sleepy Drinker” and run.