How Art Can Save Your Life

How Art Can Save Your Life

Michael Kimmelman’s The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa is a celebration of the intersection between art and life and the random genius of the unexpected.


Is there anything accidental about masterpieces? Thinking so can lead to the old myth of natural genius–“Picasso couldn’t paint a bad picture”–as well as to the easiest condemnation of modern art–“my 4-year-old could paint that Pollock.” Certainly artists draw on native gifts, but what they really need is looking and thinking, training and working, and no doubt Michael Kimmelman would agree.

His elegant book of essays takes on a slightly different topic: the masterpiece that stems from the accident. For Kimmelman, chief art critic for the New York Times, these epiphanies come in a few kinds. Accidents can lead indirectly to masterpieces, as with the chance meeting of French Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard with Marthe de Méligny, the waifish girl who became his muse for some 400 paintings. Accidents also determine masterpieces directly, as when the unexpected trapping of the ship Endurance, during the Antarctic expedition of Sir Ernest Shackleton, inspired photographer Frank Hurley’s best work. And accidents can be revalued as masterpieces over time, as with some amateur snapshots and strange collections discussed here. Kimmelman stresses not only how workaday events can “catalyze” great art but “how creating, collecting, and even just appreciating art can make living a daily masterpiece.” Hence his subtitle: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa.

The ten essays of the book fall into contrapuntal pairs. We visit two painters, Bonnard and the contemporary American realist Philip Pearlstein, in whose intimate scenes of domestic existence being and working are bound closely together. Kimmelman also considers two less fortunate figures for whom “life was an art”: Ray Johnson, the American collagist who, before his late suicide, turned everyday scraps into witty works, often in the form of postcards to well-known acquaintances, that both frustrate communication and seek it out; and Charlotte Salomon, a young German-Jewish woman who, before her death in a Nazi camp, transformed her rather humdrum life into a diaristic drama of some 1,300 pages of images and texts titled Life? or Theater? A Play With Music. We hear, too, about two characters another age would call primitives: Hugh Francis Hicks, a Baltimore dentist who amassed 75,000 light bulbs and related objects in his Museum of Incandescent Lighting, which allows Kimmelman to reflect on the art of collecting; and Bob Ross, longtime host of the public TV series The Joy of Painting, who permits Kimmelman to consider the art of the amateur. Two texts on adventuring are also included, the first featuring Hurley on the Endurance expedition near the South Pole, the second starring the author as a reluctant hiker in the South of France. The book concludes with meditations on the ordinary and the extraordinary in art: one on various painters, from the French master Chardin to the American contemporary Wayne Thiebaud, who focus on “simple pleasures,” the other on the most grandiose of earthworks, the Roden Crater project of James Turrell in Arizona and the City project of Michael Heizer in Nevada.

This dialectic of the mundane and the exceptional is central to Kimmelman’s argument, and wonder is its key. “Just as art promises wonderment, an access to a realm beyond the everyday, through the experience of which we may understand the everyday better,” he writes in his essay on the light-happy Hicks, “a collection of things, even everyday things, promises wonderment, too, as these things become no longer everyday.” This interest leads Kimmelman to touch on the Wunderkammer, the cabinet of curiosities favored in European courts before the epoch of the national museum. Essentially this order of things precedes the modern idea of art as a separate, even transcendental category, and in part Kimmelman writes out of a moment that postdates this idea, when art is often folded back into a vast field of “visual culture,” a democratic cabinet of curiosities (light bulbs included). He styles his own book as a Wunderkammer too.

How can one be opposed to this expansive aesthetic, especially if “its basic democratic message is that these miracles…are accessible to all of us, at almost any time, if we are just prepared to look for them”? And yet, radical though this notion once was in the face of elitist hierarchies of art and taste, it no longer rubs much against the interests of power: Cultural capital is invested elsewhere today. Moreover, important differences might be lost in the move to level out diverse practices. Is the Museum of Incandescent Lighting a masterpiece? It might just be a masterful instance of obsessive-compulsive behavior. Was Bob Ross right to tell millions that “painting will change your life”? That might just be snake oil in a paint tube. OK, what about “wonder”–who could refuse it? Paradoxically, this extreme delight might also flatten different pleasures. After all, we “wonder” at the latest digital effect in the movies, just as we do at the sight of 75,000 light bulbs or the idea of a work of art carved out of a crater. In short, “wonder” might be the common effect of a spectacle culture, democratic only insofar as most of us can now buy some little wonder-fix. In any case, it might distract us from the problems of everyday life as much as awaken us to its mysteries.

Kimmelman is a public art critic, and though he is one of the best, the position has its perils. His thoughts are sincere–no bad faith here–and yet he is led, by task as well as temperament, to populist views that, in an otherwise reflective book, are not much examined. On the one hand he wants to demystify art, to present it as “accessible to all of us”; on the other hand he needs to reaffirm the old belief in its special value, in particular that we are bettered by it. Beneath his new-democratic idea of art, then, lies a classic-conservative philosophy–art is to instruct and to please–and at moments this moral makes the book sound less egalitarian and more anodyne than he would like.

Within this philosophy are embedded two positions, which might also be worked over further. Although Modernism is not his subject, Kimmelman gives the old Horatian definition of art a Modernist twist: Great art teaches us “to live life more alertly”; it sharpens our senses and, in doing so, sharpens our sense of being. This is a precept of the Russian Formalists (among other Modernists): Great art renews perception, hardened by artistic convention and social habit, through a defamiliarization of representations that have become automatic. “The process of perception is an end in itself,” Viktor Shklovsky wrote in 1917. “Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.” In Russian Formalism (as opposed to the Anglo-American school of Roger Fry and Clement Greenberg) this artfulness does not separate art from life but rather restores both through renewed contact and close attention. Kimmelman would agree, and sensitivity to the perceptual-ethical nexus of art is the strength of his book. But for some readers it will also be its weakness, for the social dimension of art is only implied in this aesthetic, and its political resonance is faint indeed. Moreover, there is much art between Bonnard and the present that does not aim to instruct and to please, that frankly defies the ethical and the aesthetic. This large category is simply let drop here. For example, “accident” is a Surrealist topos, but for Kimmelman, unlike the Surrealists, there is no nasty unconscious to worry about; artistically speaking, his accidents are all happy ones.

This point leads to the second aspect of his philosophy, one that seems so natural that most of us, Kimmelman included, take it for granted. He writes like an angel, but exactly so, always with an eye to the redemptive: For all his populism, Kimmelman sees art as a process not only of refinement of sense but also of “salvation through sacrifice.” As with art that instructs and pleases, this idea of “the redemptiveness of art” is appropriate to many practices but not to all: The earthworks of Turrell and Heizer are indeed about a “redeeming beauty” (that’s the problem with them!), but those of Robert Smithson refuse any such spiritual reconciliation through art (Kimmelman passes over Smithson’s radical art in silence). More important, this redemptive aesthetic might undercut the main thrust of Kimmelman’s own argument. Is to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary truly to serve it? He presents this goal of art as a celebration of life, but this posits life as already in need of redemption, experience as always incomplete. The redemptiveness of art should be defamiliarized (as Leo Bersani suggests in his brilliant The Culture of Redemption); even one of its greatest proponents, James Joyce, cut his epiphanies with dashes of disillusionment. Perhaps the way to be truest to “the vulgate of experience” (as Wallace Stevens once called it) is precisely not to inflate its prose–even if one wishes to create “the supreme fiction.” As Stevens advises the young poet in his “Notes” to such a fiction: “It is of him, ephebe, to make, to confect/The final elegance, not to console/Nor sanctify, but plainly to propound.”

If I pile on here (Shklovsky, Bersani, Joyce, Stevens), it is because the book is provocative and the stakes are high (well, high for aesthetic debates today). At one point Kimmelman glosses the teaching of John Cage: “Be alert to the senses. Elevate the ordinary. Art is about a heightened state of awareness. Try to treat everyday life, or at least parts of it, as you would a work of art.” One can argue with this paraphrase–in my opinion, it is more ameliorative and aestheticist than Cage was, certainly more than his important followers were–but it does represent Kimmelman well. For in his view the exchange between art and life is very benign and rather limited: It issues in private moments of illumination rather than public demands for the transformation of both sides of the equation (such as the Berlin Dadaists and the Russian Constructivists, among others, had made in a different period). Although this is far better than the museum or market fare that most prominent critics offer, it is still avant-garde lite. One is refreshed momentarily but thirsty for far more–perhaps more than our time can deliver.

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