Late Monet, the Innocent Eye and the Cluttered Mind

My partner and her mother posed before the blown up image of Monet’s stunning garden and home in Giverny, and I used my phone to snap a photo.

In the underground galleries of the de Young Museum, we walked into an exhibition of the late works of the painter and I started to look, like try to get back to my old habit of deeply looking.

Monet’s place in art history is of course secured. He’s part of the accepted and taught sequence, considered by many a transitional figure from late Impressionism. He is our companion, moving from a time where painters were judged on verisimilitude (painting the thing just as it looks to the eye) to expressiveness, then on to a time of high concept and wide experimentation, most of which is now very expensive.

So many flowers and no horizon line; this was one of Monet’s signature tricks, freeing us from depth of field.

My old art dealer goggles rode my nose again — I’m seven years out of the business. I saw all of these studies and repetitions as enormously appealing. They called out across the last one hundred years for marketing.

Though his race is run and Monet is gone, his many many haystacks and the many many paintings of the cathedral at Rouen, his infinite repetitions of the Japanese bridge over his lily ponds or his smatterings of the lilies and agapanthus themselves, these mean that every museum or major collector can say, “we must have one.” And if their pockets are deep enough, it can be so, the robin’s breast puffing up with the pride of cultural accumulations. Every museum is an altar to a rather unquestioned orthodoxy of what is worth viewing and thinking about.

I found my attention straying from color contrasts, composition, brushstrokes, to the track lighting in the ceiling, the positioning and hoods chosen by the installers, their consideration of the degree spread of the beams of light and how the photons raining down were absorbed by the black painted walls, but exploded back into our eyes when refracted by Monet’s bright palettes.

I read every wall didactic and its romantic language describing his efforts, his gorgeous naïveté, his arrogance, fear and struggles against cataracts in his late life. Monet is revealed as another frail human, just like us. His near blindness eventually required that he memorize the positions of colors on his hand easel in order to capture scenes that may have become more memory than observation. He eventually relented to surgery and had some of his sight restored for his last few years on earth.

I noted that the center lines of most of the decal text were likely 42 inches above the floor, but maybe 44.

Monet cared deeply about posterity. His quotes were blown up huge on walls and I reflected on the disservice that he unknowingly did to the artists that followed. Many 20th century artists obsessed over novelty for its own sake. Posterity, fame and recognition became primary pursuits, more than inspiration or creative integrity. With Clement Greenberg and the CIA involved in the mid-20th century molding of art history (yes, that really happened as a counter-Soviet effort) we ended with an art in service to markets, the egos of oligarchs, not just in cash values, but in orthodoxies of ideas, as unquestionable as Vatican edicts to the devout Catholic. Even popular media like HBO are beginning to expose the sadness that is most elite art, the price of everything and the mockery of any actual value.

“How to Sell Art,” a chapter in my forthcoming book on incentive system design, illustrates the ways in which markets can ruin what matters most and how an absence of regulation, transparency or oversight simply drives our entire world into a pit of ROI, extractive mindsets and reciprocal exploitation. Or if you prefer a more humorous take on the smoke and mirrors art market, watch this episode of Adam Ruins Everything.

Looking at Monet’s image of the arch at Etretat, the beach in the foreground, I saw the filters of my own cluttered mind, the conditioning of my first career, perhaps fifteen years total, in the pretentious world of high end art. The clutter was like a static pattern on television, interfering with my ability to see what was right in front of me.

Like a meditation, I can usually can put the clutter down. It doesn’t even feel that hard. The discursive world falls away like lettering on a fridge rendered no longer magnetic. Concepts are temporarily banished. I can see texture and color and form and don’t even need to label the observed thing a painted flower. I can be with perception and be a perceiver and wonder at the expressions handed down one hundred years after the fact.

When I do this, the museum is reinvigorated as my own kind of cathedral, my second choice after time in the wilderness. I can look, genuinely see, and not contemplate or reflect at all. That Claude Monet fellow isn’t even around, just another figment.

It’s refreshing. Seeing occurs, almost without a seer.

I smiled, in wonder, grace. Clearly, the painter Monet is impressive outside all of the world’s validations, outside of the imperatives of commerce and canonical validation. There are mushed, smeared and dried pigments on some stretched out cloth and they are here speaking to us all at a good height for most adult eyes.

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