Monday, September 30, 2013

The Art Institute of Chicago

For as long as I can remember I've always wanted to go to Chicago. It was the one big city that was always alluring to me. More than New York or London or anywhere else, first on my list was Chicago. I don't really know why, honestly. Maybe it's because I've always been a Cubs fan. Then again I've always been a Yankees fan too, so that can't be it. Anyway, along with my dream of going to Chicago has been a desire to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. I think that desire was largely born of the 3 years I spent working as a museum security guard. Anyway, a week and a half ago, that dream was realized. Along with Priya and Amelia (two friends in my cohort here at Purdue), I finally visited the Art Institute.

The only problem was I had a cold.

Let's take a step back here for a minute and talk about rhetoric. Specifically, I want to talk about Kenneth Burke. More specifically, I want to talk about motion versus action. (Stay with me here, it won't take long.)

Now I don't necessarily want to get into the nitty gritty theoretical details here, but I think a brief discussion of motion and action will be helpful. According to Burke, the big difference between motion and action is that motion exists outside the realm of symbolicity, where action is symbolic. Let me explain. For Burke, motion is what happens in the world whether or not anyone is around to witness or define it. But, as self-conscious beings (us) step into the world of motion and make sense of it – as we attach symbolic meaning to motion through language and other symbol systems – and as we begin to work with various motions to consciously choose to do things, we operate in the realm of action. In Burke’s own words:

There can be motion without action (as the sea can go on thrashing about whether or not there are animals that have a word for it). There can be no action without motion (as we animals could not have words for anything except for the motions of our nervous systems and the vibrations that carry our words from one of us to another through the air or that make words visible on the page). (“(Nonsymbolic) Motion/ (Symbolic) Action” 814)

Last winter I wrote and presented a conference paper in which I discussed some of these ideas. (If you want to discuss this idea with me further let me know. It fascinates me.) Anyway, I've been thinking a lot about these ideas. About how much the uncontrollable elements of our lives (motion) affect the choices we make as well as things that we often think of as being fundamental to our idiosyncratic senses of self - our general positive or negative outlook on life or our tastes in music, books and art.

And that brings us back around to my experience at the museum.

Like I said, I've wanted to go to the Art Institute of Chicago for a long time. And ever since I moved out here to Indiana I've been positively itching to get up there. I don't really know how to adequately describe being there, except to say that it was one of the more inspiring afternoons of my life. There just aren't words to describe the joy of finally seeing some of my favorite artists and works of art that I've long only admired from a distance. At one point I distinctly thought that if I could live out my days there I would die happy.

That said, as the afternoon wore on, I could feel myself getting sicker and sicker. I felt a fever coming on, and my back and feet and legs were starting to ache something fierce. But I couldn't just couldn't allow myself to leave. There was so much I wanted to see, so much I wanted to take in. Finally it got to be fairly unbearable, so I left the museum, went to the nearest CVS and bought some cold medicine and ibuprofen. Fully drugged up, I headed back to the museum for a few more minutes until it closed.

As the museum closed and Amelia, Priya, Kristen (Priya's friend who joined us in Chicago), and I were getting ready to go eat some fantastic pizza, we started talking about which works were our favorites. I was quieter than usual, partially from being sick and partially from the awe of what I'd just experienced. I didn't quite know how to express myself. Even now I don't quite know how to express my experience that day. The more I thought about it, the more I was surprised at the works that I kept coming back to as the ones that I'd found impacted me most. 

These are they, listed in the order in which I saw them:

Nocturne: Blue and Gold--Southampton Water, James Whistler

Houses of Parliament, London, Claude Monet

Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons), Vasily Kandinsky

Untitled (Painting), Mark Rothko

Greyed Rainbow, Jackson Pollock

All images courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago website

I wasn't necessarily surprised that I liked these works, but what I was surprised that in the end these were the ones that had had the strongest impression on me. As I've taken about a week to process it all and think about why these were the most impressive to me, I've decided that it comes back to motion.

As I walked the museum, my body was experiencing the motion of dealing with a nasty cold. If I hadn't been at the museum, that nonsymbolic cold-fighting-body motion would have likely have found its symbolic action in the form of me laying on my bed listening to Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. But I wasn't in bed; I was in an art museum. So art became the chosen symbol system for action.

I don't think I'm unique when I say this, but I am most impacted by art when it reflects life or casts light on what, to me, it means to live. (When I say "art" I mean that in the broadest sense, including literature, music, dance, and even natural landscapes.) I want to feel something and be changed as a result of my interaction with art. And I've realized that that is exactly what happened with each of these works.

As I contemplated so much of the history of art over the space of a couple hours, these were the paintings that made me feel. It was as though each of these painters had looked into the future and had been granted special insight into my soul at the moment I would see their work for the first time. And their skill was such that they had depicted the state my soul perfectly on their canvases. Even now as I look at these (frankly rather uninspiring) reproductions that I've copied and pasted into this post, I am taken back to exactly how I felt that Saturday afternoon. Words inadequately express what each of them makes me feel, even now.

Of the bunch, the most powerful for me was and is Pollock's "Greyed Rainbow." Somehow, despite the crowds that had been ever-present no matter where I went all afternoon long, when I got to "Greyed Rainbow" I was the only person there. As I stood in front of it, I was completely taken in. The painting seemed to engulf my entire field of view, and I felt like I was an integral part of it's chaotic movement. I felt myself ever-so-slightly swaying back and forth, and my vision seemed to focus and unfocus over and over as the painting washed over me. It was utterly mesmerizing. I don't know that I've ever before felt like I was so intimately connected to a piece of art. By this point in the day my body was achy all over and my head was hot and throbbing from what I knew was a fever. In that state this piece of art was the perfect symbolic representation (action) of my uncontrollable, nonsymbolic, bodily motion. That was one of the last pieces I saw before deciding I needed to get some medicine in me.

The motion of my body dealing with a cold changed my entire experience that day, and I'm glad for it. It wasn't exactly pleasant, but it left an indelible impact on the way I will forever view these works. There are definitely worse ways to spend a cold-riddled afternoon.



  1. I was at the Art Institute Chicago about a month ago and remember all those pieces, so they really do stand out. It's a fantastic museum. I like your insights on motion/action in terms of art--makes sense.

    Did you get pizza at Lou Malnati's?

  2. Love this. Love Rothko. Well played, sir.

  3. AHH! I love Chicago!! I also love the Whistler and the Rothko. Seriously. Art. Right? How can something in a frame make you feel so many emotions?? Something I am still trying to grasp. Glad you had some pizza. Hope it was deep dish like a good Chi-town pizza should be.