If you are like me, then in your darker moments, when you are wandering around wondering what the fuck it’s all for, you have consoled yourself by looking at art.
Pretty much any art, in any place, will do. However, it is convenient to go to a museum, where you can look at many works of art in a warm, dry, and quiet environment, and be comforted by the recognition that many other people throughout history have also experienced the fucked-uppeddness of the human condition, and have also been despairing, but they have managed to turn this terrible realization into something beautiful, and perhaps, if the work is really excellent, something that may challenge you to similarly enlarge and transform your own view.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke knew how great art could have this effect. Do you know his poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, in Stephen Mitchell’s translation? It is mind-blowing but if I stop to type out its 14 short lines here you will immediately stop reading this, such is the allure of poetry in our day and age.
Let’s just say that Rilke wrote a poem about the power of a statue, and in it he makes clear that this power is not the power of an object that is going to help you do more, faster, better; the “power” of an object that is going to ultimately keep you more tightly chained to your current mode of thought. He writes about how a motionless, big-ass piece of rock, which was painstakingly transformed into art, is demanding—as it views you, not the other way around—nothing less than your own transformation.
Great art’s great gift is that it acknowledges the fucked-upped ness of the world in a way that is confrontational, consoling, and encouraging all at once. First it says “Yes, this is the way it is, motherfucker.” Then it says, “Now, c’mon, step up to the plate.”
And this brings me to the subject, in case you thought I had forgotten about it, of this month’s parenting column, and the subject is that despite my love of, and reverence for, art, wherever it may be found, there is one type of art that makes me despair immediately, and that art is the child’s bedroom mural.
There is so much weird thought going on in the creation of children’s bedroom murals that some art history student has probably written a long and impressive doctoral thesis about it, and if so, I wish she would email it to me so I could read it in my copious free time. This column will merely attempt to hit the high points as I see them.
First of all, let us acknowledge that having a baby, particularly if one has never had one before, is terrifying, and one nice way to deal with terror is to get very busy, and one way to get very busy is to attempt to furnish and decorate a baby’s room. Let us begin, then, by admitting that we can’t be too hard on those who make these murals for their children, because they are terrified people who are waiting for a miracle, and in many ways that is all of us, whether we become parents or not.
Also, we must further acknowledge that in creating a child’s bedroom mural, parents are trying to offer their children the encouragement and consolation of art. About to be confronted with a strange, new person, someone who doesn’t know that poop goes in the toilet or humans sleep at night, they try to do her a favor. They offer her art that they hope will comfort and soothe her because it represents her weirdo world. They acknowledge her boundary-lessness in the art’s form. In anticipation of their children, grown-ups write on the wall.
This is all well and good. The problem with children’s murals is not the medium. “What is an appropriate subject for a child’s bedroom mural?” is a fantastic question and yet it seems to hardly provoke much thought. Whether they make the work themselves or outsource it, adults go repeatedly towards the same visual themes, themes that reflect their idea of what children think about, and this idea is that babies and children think about the things in the babies and children’s books the adults also happen to write.
This is wrong.
By now you are probably wondering how I am so sure of this, being, as I am, a fake doctor. I will tell you.
I was out walking last summer with my girl, who was then two. I was actually not walking with her, as in, walking beside her; I was carrying her because she had gotten half way to our destination and then refused to continue walking. It was very hot; I was struggling to carry her and my bag. We were walking past Port Authority, in a spot that smelled so strongly of pee it was no longer just a smell, it had material properties.
I was not very conscious of the many passers-by; I was trying to get through the throng with my load. But my daughter suddenly pointed and exclaimed, “Look! The baby is holding the man!”
I followed her finger to see. A young man, probably 19, was walking towards us. He was naked from the waist up and wearing jeans and a ball hat. He was radiant in the way that young men are at that age; handsome and lean, his chest, shoulders and biceps covered with elaborately lettered tattoos, all done in bluish ink. On his left shoulder, a baby, probably two weeks old, was curled asleep, its right arm folded into its body like a wing and the tiny left hand resting lightly on the young man’s heart. The baby was wearing a onesie and a small white hat.
If I had seen the two of them at any other moment I would have seen a young man holding his tiny baby, probably because I am used to decoding the image this way: adults = strong holders; babies = weak being-helders. Something about my daughter’s words, her urgent, verbal flip-flop, helped me see it differently. I focused on the baby first, and instead of seeing the weak baby in juxtaposition with the dominant adult, I saw the baby’s power. I saw that the baby, who could not yet roll over, sit up, or chew, who had seemingly been flung here in a slingshot from another universe, and landed helplessly on this young man’s chest, was holding the young man tenderly, with the translucent glow of a deep sea jellyfish, because the baby was incapable of doing anything else.
I got it: the baby was holding the man. In comparison, the man was not really holding the baby at all; he seemed barely cognizant, in fact, of the baby resting there, although not five minutes earlier I would have described these two as “young man holding baby.”
I reeled through the pee installation, jarred by this change in perspective: the baby was holding the man, of course. This is what babies do. They emerge here from elsewhere and they hold us in a way that we can’t see or feel anymore because we have grown up and gotten jobs and had our hearts broken, etc, etc. And we don’t understand how they hold us or love us and when someone asks us what we think they think about, we say they think about squirrels and puppies because we think babies and children are small and not that smart.
We have it all wrong, I am telling you. Babies and children are geniuses, and they are radiating like stars, and if were to really think about the question “What is an appropriate artwork for my baby’s room?” we would begin a list with pieces like, Damien’s Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007), which is a skull encrusted with flawless diamonds; or just about anything by Fred Tomaselli, because he is a master seer of the otherworldly; or Mike and Doug Starn’s Big Bambu (2010) because it is a giant, ever-changing, painstakingly handmade waveform.
But we don’t think like this. We get busy, and we make the kid-room, and we or our hired artistes put up the not-too-scary dragon mural, and then when the baby arrives we put her in there, in this sort of walk-in safe of a room, a little being in her box with her things, not unlike a tomb, alas, and this is just the beginning.
Probably the best advice I personally ever got about what art is appropriate for children came from, Irma, pronounced “Ear-ma,” a roundish, fiftysomething Italian babysitter I hired for my older son when he was two months old. Not having family nearby, and not knowing anyone to help me with my newborn, I found Irma through a fancy baby nurse agency, so fancy that her previous client had been Martin Scorsese, a fact she seldom tired of reminding me.
Irma came to work for us a week or so before 9/11, and when I expressed concern, in the few days after that day, about the possibility of there being a bomb in our Garment District neighborhood, she looked at me with slight pity in her eyes, and said, “Mother,” (she never called me by name, only “Mother,”) “They are not going to bomb here. There are no rich people here.”
Despite her disdain for our lack of Scorsese-ness, Irma was a fantastic sitter; I learned a lot from her about caring for an infant. And I stood perplexed but respectfully observing one day as I found her standing near my son’s bassinet, cutting out a picture from the “New York,” magazine that had just arrived.
“Baby needs something to look at,” she said. As I was “Mother,” all babies were “Baby” to her.
I watched as she neatly clipped the edges off a black and white headshot of the actress Frances McDormand, and then affixed it to the side of my son’s bassinet with scotch tape.
“Babies like faces, and they like black and white,” she said.
Sure enough, my son started at Frances for a long time, and her image, increasingly curled at the edges, stayed in the bassinet until he grew out of it several months later.
What was he thinking, confronted by a two-dimensional representation of that lovely and talented character actress? I don’t know. I can only say that Frances held his gaze as no other art in our home did. And if she said anything like, “This is the way it is here, motherfucker. Now, c’mon, step up to the plate,” I would feel like I curated his baby art collection as well as a parent could hope to manage.
Until next time, then.