Learning to See from a Desktop Pattern

One of my favorite features on my new Mac G4 laptop is its rotating desktop images. You can designate a file of images, and both the desktop and screen saver will cycle through the images in that file randomly, at a number of variable frequency rates. So after trying out several of the image styles that came with the computer, I decided to build up my own image base off the internet. J.M.W. Turner is about my favorite painter, and I had a thrilling experience with an exhibition of his work at the Tate Gallery a couple of years ago, so I went to Artcyclopedia and downloaded about 80 Turner jpegs, mostly from the Tate Gallery web page. I also downloaded quite a few paintings by Canaletto. I started with these two because only a certain type of painting will work as a desktop pattern, and it has nothing to do, of course, with artistic quality. The painting has to be horizontal in orientation. Otherwise, the screen cuts off the top and bottom, and it’s a mess. Portraits and other close-ups of human figures are distracting. I find a desktop pattern enhances the hours I spend on the computer if it opens up and creates a sense of space. Landscapes are almost obligatory. I tried some Jackson Pollocks, another favorite, and they were awful: flat up against the screen, emphasizing the flatness, too busy, claustrophobia-triggering. Turner and Canaletto painted mostly spacious landscapes with a great sense of distance, and by happy coincidence they painted many of the same kinds of scenes of Venice and London.

Since then, I’ve added many other painters: Caspar David Friedrich, Constable, Whistler, Frederick Church, Albert Bierstadt. Most modern painters don’t work very well because their images are too flat and up-front, too nonillusionistic, but Yves Tanguy (someone I have strong affinities for anyway) is wonderful, and there are a lot of good Dali images for the purpose, and a few by Magritte. (I realize there are copyright issues involved, but I’m not doing anything with the images except privately looking at them. And what else are they for?)

And so I spend a lot of time looking at these paintings as they rotate on my computer desktop, hundreds of times as many hours as I would ever spend in a museum, or looking at them in books. And when I leave the house, I realize that they’ve changed my life. I used to think the cookie-cutter rural houses between campus and the town of Red Hook were pretty shabby looking. But Edward Hopper’s paintings of similar houses have made me notice a kind of noble simplicity to them, a classic functional form. I notice the angles at which shadows of gables and porch rooves fall across them at twilight. The drab empty field next to the high school with telephone lines running down it looked like a Friedrich this morning, a plane of blue-white snow and another of blue sky picturesquely bisected by a horizon of trees and flat one-story buildings. The mists through which I see the Catskills across the Hudson River make them seem slightly whited out, as though by Church himself. And what Turner has done for the sunrises and sunsets I need hardly tell you: the sun becomes the focal point of every scene, and I get mesmerized almost staring into it, noticing how it sucks up the colors of everything in its direction and yet has an ineffable color of its own.

Even though it has a stellar philosophical pedigree stemming from Kant, I have never been comfortable with the claim that art is useless, even when the most positive possible spin is put on that uselessness. So this unexpected reminder of the transformative power of art pleases me a great deal. How could I remember what the transformative effect of music is? I’m surrounded by it, haven’t been outside its sphere of influence for ten days at a time in 48 years. But painting is an intermittent pleasure, and sustained immersion in it a rare experience. What does it do for me? It reminds me that the town of Red Hook, New York, is not a drab series of developers’ opportunistic decisions. It is a piece of nature, both nonhuman and human. It embodies aspirations whose outward form imitates geometry. The impulses of human life have come to rest here between the earth’s flatness and its verticality. Light turns the entire area into a daily kaleidoscope on a larger level than I can quite comprehend. My work divides the night cleanly from the day, where the angle of the sun rolls a smooth continuum.

Is this useless? to transform Red Hook from the seen-better-days college town where I accidentally ended up living into the place where the white snow and the blue sky are bisected by the line of low-slung buildings, where the prefab yellow house on the hill whose porch columns cast diagonal shadows becomes an embodiment of someone’s personal myth, where the symmetrical right angles of the drugstore and hardware store at the center of town become iconic of small-town America everywhere? I think not. The problem is, we don’t realize that we need this integration into our environment until we get it, and then you realize what an impoverished life it would be not to have it. And Hopper and Church painted an America now long past – who’s doing it for us now? Who’s interpreting the angles and shadows of the malls and the fast-food places so we learn to connect with the world we’re in now? I’m sure someone’s doing it, and that they’re having a hell of a hard time getting publicity.

Can music do this? It strikes me that, perhaps, modern sound pieces like Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room, Luc Ferrari’s Presque Rien No. 1, Steve Reich’s Come Out, and the granddaddy of them all Cage’s 4’33” do for our auditory life what the paintings I’m talking about do for our visual life. Otherwise, I suspect that most music conventionally understood, as in 19th-century classical music, sharpens our perception of our emotional life instead. Charles Ives’ Essays Before a Sonata seems to argue the latter point, and John Cage argued the former point, as paraphrased by Life magazine in 1943:

Cage believes that when people today get to understand and like his music, which is produced by banging one object with another, they will find new beauty in everyday modern life, which is full of noises made by objects banging against each other.

So let’s avoid the two traps: the trap of agreeing that art is useless but in a good way, and then trying to convince people that they should fund it anyway; and the trap of trying to make art useful by championing only its multicultural and social-problem-alleviating characteristics. Art is what ties us to each other and to the landscape as humans, and keeps us from being merely alienated cogs in an economic system devised not for our benefit. And if we spend a thousand times as much time staring at a computer screen as in a museum, geez, maybe we should be commissioning desktop-pattern paintings from painters (and restaurant background music from composers). Let’s put the art where it works!