This morning I had the privilege to deliver the keynote address that opened a two day conference at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. The conference is called "Art Beyond Sight" and I want to post my comments on the blog so that people with hearing impairments or anyone else for that matter can see again what I said about art and blindness.
I had to leave the museum after my talk because my guide dog Vidal was having an upset stomach. If you were at the conference and would like to write to me, please feel free to do so. I had to leave the lecture hall for the sake of the museum’s carpet.
Not very long ago I heard a boy jumping on discarded bedsprings on a Chicago sidewalk.
He was making a stripped down music from solitude and trash. It was
the song of a woodcutter’s axe in the empty woods. He saw me listening.
He noticed my guide dog. He sensed an audience. He threw everything he
had into making rare music with ruined steel coils and shoes. He was
releasing invisible spirits into the morning air of Wabash Avenue. The
music grew out of his blood. I’m guessing that if you’re a sighted
person you’d have driven right on by. Or maybe you’d have crossed to the
other side of the street if you had been walking there. But I heard the
maddened dancing for five full minutes before moving on.
At first I thought the effect was obscene. He was simply calling out
the furtive and metallic protests of forgotten trysts. I thought of a
bordello in the wild west.
I laughed at the salty bravado of the performance. Then I saw
flashes of light. The coils were rising and compressing in timed
measures. My blind eyes could just make out the glint of his
instruments. In turn I began to listen to what this dancer was really
doing. The broken springs flashed like the undersides of leaves. I
was like a sailor on a distant ship. I could see the maritime flash of
his lantern. In turn I saw that his bed springs were tuned in harmony with
the sky and the local trees. The dancer was saying all kinds of things.
His feet were rattling and whistling. I’d never heard anything like
The dancer was offering his ragged memories to the damp air of the street. I saw the sparks and heard the 16th notes; the 8th notes; the sparks of his dance dropped like stones from a bridge…
I was feeling lucky just then, alone with my guide dog, the two of
us having been on an ordinary walk. A gold leaf was spinning down. A
red maple leaf was floating on water. Flashes of sun ran across the
June river. The dancer’s shoulders and hips dipped and high notes leapt
all around him. He was dancing at the epicenter of the early light—that
overcast sun that always hangs in the mornings above Lake Michigan.
Then he was in an island of trees. Low notes came suddenly, the notes were signifying a bent path.
The way forward was harder for some reason. The dance had taken a darker turn.
I could tell this was now a steep narrative. Somehow he’d figured out how to make the springs sound like a tuba. Then he made the metal groan like a cello. And
then hammers were flying. Again there were sparks of light from the
The high notes came like whale songs from some migratory coast. For a
moment I thought about Marsilio Ficino, the Renaissance man of letters who remarked that "beauty is just shapes and sounds". Hearing the Chicago dancer move across the secret world of a homemade dance—a "found" dance—I thought that Ficino left out the weird and lovely human and animal volition that lives behind the shapes and sounds. I also realized again much as I did
when I was a boy that when you stand still you can hear the unexpected
music and sense the light that comes from living and walking in shadows.
This conference is called "Art Beyond Sight" because we are here to
celebrate the thing I have just called "the weird and lovely human and animal volition that lives behind the shapes and sounds".
Another way to say this is that "art beyond sight" is art itself.
The Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca referred to this as "duende" – a factor of imagination that he called "the deep roads of the guitar".
Poets are experts when it comes to walking the deep roads of the guitar.
How would you paint the deep roads of the guitar? Would you paint a
highway crossing the sun burst top of a Fender Stratocaster?
Maybe each string of the painted guitar would be its own path, every string lit by its own cold moon?
Duende can’t be understood in easy visual terms.
Figurative language, which is the true blood of poetry cant be drawn, photographed, or painted.
Just so ,the experience of the visual arts can’t be rendered in the language of journalism.
It’s also interesting and noteworthy that the experience of
blindness or low vision cannot be rendered in the language of
In my first memoir, Planet of the Blind, I describe the experience
of blindness as being similar to what a viewer experiences when looking
at a non-figurative painting.
Here are some of the ways I describe the interior experience of blindness:
BLINDNESS IS OFTEN perceived by the sighted as an either/or condition: one sees or does not see. But often a blind person experiences a series of veils:
I stare at the world through smeared and broken
windowpanes. Ahead of me the shapes and colors suggest the sails of
Tristan’s ship or an elephant’s ear floating in air, though in reality
it is a middle-aged man in a London Fog raincoat that billows behind
him in the April wind. He is like the great dead Greeks in Homer’s descriptions of the underworld. In the
heliographic distortions of sunlight or dusk, everyone I meet is
crossing Charon’s river. People shimmer like beehives.
sensorium of the blind who possess some marginal vision is by turns
magical and disturbing.There is nothing in front of you, nothing behind. Now there is a shadow in the shape of a man who has appeared from the mist. How lovely and terrible this is! It’s a mad, holy vision, the repeated appearance and disappearance of the physical world.
My sister once spent some time in meditation at a
Hindu ashram in the south of Germany and came home having seen the very
air atomize into a dazzling whirlwind of living particles.
Hearing her story, I thought of walking alone at dawn, the morning
light like stained glass.
I can see these things as I walk to the corner store for milk.
It’s like living inside an immense abstract painting. Jackson Pollock’s drip canvas Blue Poles comes to mind, a tidal wash, an enormous, animate cloud filled with light. This is glacial seeing, like lying on your back in an ice cave and staring up at the cobalt sun. The beauty is of course conditional. Many who have minimal sight are photophobic, like myself, and daylight is painful. I can’t go outdoors without wearing the darkest possible glasses.
When I enter a shop or restaurant, I am totally blind. When my eyes have adjusted, I still cannot read a menu or catch the eye of a waiter. My eyes dance in a private, rising field of silver threads, teeming greens, roses, and smoke.
And finally, here’s a brief description of how I experience the Brooklyn Bridge:
I’m stock-still, filling myself—every microscopic and meandering raindrop inside a man must be replenished with another.
I picture myself holding the sieve of Theocritus above my head, the water falling in streams through my hair.
It occurs to me that my experience of the Brooklyn Bridge is so completely cerebral it is in fact a kind of metaphor, an imaginary headdress like those body-length hats worn by Tibetan women.
In my version, the bridge falls over me in layers of amethyst, gold, purple and silver. These are the threads of being.
Someone once asked Jackson Pollock about his painting process. He said: "When I’m in my painting, I’m in my painting."
Pollock was a guide for me when I set out to write "Planet of the
Blind" along with poets like Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, and Sir
Strangers who may see me on the street walking with my dog or white
cane may have no idea that my "duende" is a living, moving, dancing
"Art Beyond Sight" challenges the blind and the sighted to
re-dedicate themselves to the sharing of Lorca’s guitar with its secret
And in closing, here’s one more line from Lorca that you should keep in mind while exploring the museum:
One does not eat oranges under the full moon.
The right fruits are green and cold.