Agnes Martin at Dia:Beacon

The etymology of the term “jaded” surprised me. It has been traced back to a 14th century Middle English word for a worn-out horse, one that can no longer pull a cart or work the fields. It is about being wearied, exhausted, spent, bored, out of juice.

While the roots of the term are utilitarian and agricultural, it has now morphed into a condition that is all too human. It is used to describe someone dissipated through sybaritic overindulgence as well as a person who has worked with the public too long and just has no patience left for collective human idiocy. Sheer repetition of the mundane, like the barrage of noninformation that is Fox News and talk radio, can also result in a dulling and deadening of our response.

But it is overexposure of a loftier kind that troubles me most. In many ways it is the dark side of devotion: Our passions drive us to excess, but answering that appetitive call for more, more! can also come at a price.

James Elkins offers a cautionary warning in his book, Pictures and Tears. As part of his research on emotional responses to art, Elkins polled his art history and critic colleagues to find out if they had ever cried in front of a painting. He was amazed by the responses. Some said they remembering tearing up in front of a work of art when they were younger, but that had not happened since they became trained experts. Some of Elkins’ colleagues said they thought it would be viewed as extremely unprofessional for them to exhibit that degree of emotionalism toward a work of art.

Of course saving face (even though we could have a whole other discussion about what that means) is not the only reason a distancing takes place over time. Can you look at and contemplate art every day for a lifetime and still keep the fresh openmindedness that drove you to art and art making in the first place?

I fight this flagging in myself. I have to watch my thoughts with vigilance when I find myself glazing over. It can be a slow drift into disconnection, but the symptoms are obvious: Walking too fast past paintings I have seen hundreds of times; listening to the conversations in my head rather than letting my body feel and lead; feeling uninspired and well, jaded.

And sometimes you need to relearn enchantment from those who are new to an experience and fully present to the joy that comes from discovering art, music, writing for the first time. Yesterday was a good example. I brought two friends to Dia:Beacon, their first visit to a place I have been to many, many times. Yes I am still moved by Robert Irwin‘s vision for that former Nabisco box printing plant, and many of the artists on exhibit continue to speak to me. But watching my two companions discover room after room of extraordinary work—from Robert Ryman‘s rarefied explorations of white to John Chamberlain‘s phalanx of twisted metal stanchions to Agnes Martin‘s exquisite invitations into a silent stillness to Sol LeWitt‘s enchanted graphite tooling of walls—made me stop and consider how I have allowed distance and overexposure to detach me from the joy that is there, ambient and freely available. When I read what my partner Dave wrote about his visit, “Being in 3 rooms full of Agnes Martins definitely leads one to believe in a female deity,” I was reminded that receptivity does have an aspect of conscious will. Magic is happening whether we are tuning in or not. I don’t want to miss any of it.


The exquisite human handedness of a stuttering graphite line: Looking closely at an Agnes Martin painting

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