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The Eye of the Beholder

Encounters with art in Second Place and beyond

Second Place by Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 192 pages.

A man is looking at art. He’s in an American metropolis, sitting at the philharmonic or meandering around a contemporary art venue—maybe it’s a gallery opening, or a museum show a few hours before closing. It might be late at night, and he’s at the cinema for a screening of something experimental, preferably a film with a run time of at least four hours. He’s alone, or if other people are around, there’s distance between the man and the others. He’s in his head, critical not just of the work, but of his own reactions to what he encounters. Never mind that the man could be described as an artist too—he writes poems or novels during the day. The hero, when he’s observing, requires distance from his feelings about art.

This scene could be from a handful of novels published in the last decade, including Ben Lerner’s debut Leaving the Atocha Station or Mauro Javier Cárdenas’s Aphasia. These books, smart and self-reflective, include some of contemporary literature’s best ekphrasis. What stands out, though, are the number of characters they feature who are suspicious of the feelings art provokes.

The sentiment isn’t new. Kant infamously required aesthetic experience to involve a measure of “psychical distance.” Critics who’ve read their Adorno wonder whether our emotional responses to cultural objects leave us complicit and unable to critique what we see. In the last decade, though, it’s not just critics who are skeptical of their affective ties to the books they read or the things they look at. It’s novelists and the characters they draw. In Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, narrator Adam Gordon worries that he’s “incapable of having a profound experience of art” and doubts that anyone else has either; he describes intense suspicion whenever someone claims a “poem or painting or piece of music ‘changed their life.’” More recently, in Cárdenas’s Aphasia, narrator Antonio can’t remember the name of the last piece that moved him at MoMA (Glenn Ligon’s The Death of Tom). Both depict a split between our emotions about art and our considered critical judgments. We fear that our emotional reactions to art—too enthusiastic, not thought through—could be easier to manipulate than our thoughts are. It’s an idea widespread enough that literary theorist Rita Felski wrote a book about art and our felt responses to it, wondering if it’s possible to think about aesthetic absorption in a “less-shamefaced” way.

We fear that our emotional reactions to art—too enthusiastic, not thought through—could be easier to manipulate than our thoughts are.

Enter Rachel Cusk. Attachment—to art or to anything—seems like a strange lens through which to view Cusk’s work, not least because she rose to fame with candid memoirs that take as their object forms of disengagement. Questioning motherhood and divorce, A Life’s Work and Aftermath privilege freedom as a kind of disunion. In the former book, Cusk’s daughter at five months old is described like glue and toffee pudding, “sweet but sticky.” The memoir, as a New York Times reviewer had it, was a far cry from “one of those parenting handbooks filled with molasses bran muffin recipes and glorious descriptions of natural childbirth.” The reference to molasses, here, is significant: Cusk’s world is often described as one that involves moving away from persistently cloying attachments.

The tendency to chafe against affective ties is something Cusk’s first-person narrators share. They’re lives are often liminal. Her novels abound with people who don’t belong in the houses they’re living in: visitors to a second home, people on artistic retreats and residencies, tourists, people in relationships they need to shed. And her narrators often set about casting aside unwanted burdens. It’s an idea that shows up again in Second Place, Cusk’s most recent novel following the conclusion of her Outline trilogy. M, a woman writer, admits she’s trying to “get rid of the people and the things I don’t like.”

But the story is always more complicated than this; Cusk’s women can never exactly get away with being fully autonomous. Her interest is in how women, and women artists in particular, are to see themselves as individuals before mothers or partners. Women, after all, don’t often have the liberty of distance. What’s true of personal relationships turns out to be all the more so when it comes to art objects.

Like Leaving the Atocha Station, Second Place begins with the narrator encountering a work of art. Unlike Lerner’s or Cardenas’s narrators, however, M is absorbed. Cruising around Paris, she notices a painting on a flyer, and almost in spite of herself, she’s captivated by the work. She follows a series of signs until she tracks down the artist’s gallery. M is stirred by the painter’s aloof self-portrait, but her reaction is odd. She conflates artist and artistic creation and winds up having intensely felt responses to a work that seems to bar them. In the painting, M admits, L shows himself “at about the distance you might keep between yourself and a stranger.” It’s almost as if he’s looking from outside of himself, with a gaze that’s “objective and compassionless.” M is aware of this fact that her reaction is undesired—she wonders why L’s art had “affected [her] in that way,” especially when the work seems to say very little to women generally. Even months later, M will shuffle through a catalogue of L’s work to “look at the images and to feel the sensation they always give me.” Her surprise at her own emotional reactions to L’s art is threaded throughout the novel.

This attachment sets the novel’s plot in motion: years after her first encounter with the artworks in Paris, M invites L to join her and her husband, Tony, at their second place, a country cabin on their property that sometimes doubles as an artist’s retreat. M theorizes the connection between the personal and artistic in an early letter to L. The marshy landscape in which she lives is desolate, M writes. People visit the second place and attempt to paint it, but what they often end up painting is “the contents of their own mind.” The point is instructive. It’s as if M is onto something that L doesn’t yet understand: that the cold, critical separation between subject and artist is destined to collapse. While L initially declines the invitation to summer at the marsh, he turns up a year later with a beautiful young girlfriend in tow. M is not expecting this second visitor, nor does she seem to like the girl, Brett, very much.

The relationship between L and M is troubled from the start. L’s a remarkably crap houseguest: shortly after his arrival, he tears down his host’s curtains, avoids her at communal meals, and off-handedly criticizes her book sales. All the same, M tries to overcome the requisite obstacles. She forgives L’s “refusal to know anything about [her],” runs errands to get him new sheets, and even ferries heavy packages to his studio. L responds by telling M he can’t really see her.

So far, the reader might see M’s affective responses as defective. She’s constantly trying to connect with an artist who rebuffs her, in his work and in life. When L paints portraits, he partakes in an act of scrutiny that requires “the coldness of separation” between the artist and his subject. It’s the same aloofness that’s part of how he treats M, too. In moments, his inattention verges on sadism. L paints everyone else at the second place before he gets to her: M’s daughter, M’s husband, Brett, even her daughter’s hapless beau. M starts to go crazy from being excluded, especially after her attempts to overcome the hurdles L sets out, but when it seems like she’ll finally be painted, she’s radiant and chipper.

This points to another feature of the novel: the envy of artistic distance as a gendered response. M, a woman writer, looks at L, a male painter, with admiration and a bit of  wonder. She’s attached in a way that he doesn’t seem to be: he flits between places; his career involves taking up different residences and different young women. He may not be successful any longer thanks to the collapse of the art market, but he’s cool and unencumbered. When M first encounters L’s paintings, she describes how part of the pull is the way that his work stands in for aesthetic aloofness itself: in it is a “freedom elementally and unrepentingly male down to the last brushstroke.” Beholding it, she is able to step back and out of the story of her life in which she’s normally immersed, able to again “[become] distinct from it.” Critical remove is something M wants, but can’t quite pin down—“life rarely offers sufficient time or opportunity to be free in more than one way” she laments. M is defined relationally: she’s partnered, she’s mother to an adult daughter. Even in the twenty-first century, aesthetic autonomy is usually the prerogative of men, and it’s inevitable that women artists wish they could trade places sometimes.

Second Place is presented as an object of M’s creation (taking the form of a letter to a friend), and it offers M an occasion to try making and critiquing work as L does. Put otherwise, she gets to behave as a male artist would, to try on a bit of what she calls “borrowed finery” by cross-identifying with the men around her. In moments, M seems to enjoy it. In the heat of summer, when L arrives at the marsh, M begins to see things “from a greater distance” than she normally does. The telescope in her hands is turned backwards. She’s admiring of the feeling at first, at the promise of this artistic reserve. It’s not something her gentle partner can offer. If L and other artists have “succeeded in discarding or marginalising their inner reality quite early on,” then M wants to do that too. Instead, she finds herself in a trickier spot. On the one hand, M knows the worst thing would be making her reader “identify with my feelings” and the way she sees things, and yet, she doesn’t have access to L’s remove. L, meanwhile, simply can’t “conceive of the notion of obligation.” Neither are alone in their attempts at aesthetic autonomy. Kurt, M’s daughter’s boyfriend, plays at becoming a writer too, sitting at his desk in an extremely visible location in the main house, conspicuously occupied with “matters of a higher-order” than the domestic ones M and her husband are engaged in. He doesn’t tend after the marshes or run errands in the city for linens; he doesn’t mend or mow or do care work.

M’s attempt to free herself in the name of art comes to a particularly climatic head. In the last third of the book, when L finally agrees to paint M’s portrait, M is ecstatic. She puts on her wedding dress, leaves her husband Tony in their shared bedroom, and heads from the main house to the guest cabin where L and his paramour live. Tony seems to register what she’s doing a few seconds after she leaves and calls her back, but M proceeds anyway. When she nears L’s studio, she sees he and Brett overhauling the second place. They smear the walls with a hellish garden scene, slopping up murals with twisted animals and growths with “big pink stamens like phalluses.” They shriek with laughter and ridicule M for being a “castrating bitch.” Not exactly a subtle warning about what happens when you leave all your attachments behind in the hopes of a masculine process of art-creation. M runs back to her house and realizes that her husband has left. It seems like she’s being disciplined: her attempt at doing things as a male artist would has left her without the attachments that matter to her.

As a result, she comes to realize that aesthetic detachment, at least the kind she left to search for, is a mirage. The whole idea of art itself, M thinks, is a “serpent, whispering in our ears, sapping away all our satisfaction and belief in the things of this world.” Art isn’t higher because it’s separate from the rest of life, she concludes—nor is the idea of autonomy unrelated to the idea of property, as if L was “defending his right not to be trespassed on” by anyone else. M can’t get at artistic autonomy, but that’s not a failing on her part: it’s one that follows from the idea itself: “The distance of art suddenly felt like nothing but the distance in myself, the coldest, loneliest distance in the world from true love and belonging.”

Not exactly a subtle warning about what happens when you leave all your attachments behind in the hopes of a masculine process of art-creation.

This could sound trite, but the book isn’t just about M realizing the impossibility of aesthetic autonomy. L’s fate is the sorriest: he’s hospitalized while at the second place. After being discharged, he can barely walk—M’s daughter and husband have to help him around at the beckon of his whistle. He’s too sick to go, or so it seems, until one day he leaves all the same, ending up dead in Paris. Before he leaves M’s, though, L manages to make a series of night paintings—clutching at brushes he can barely hold up himself, painting in a fervor well into the early mornings—and they bring about a new bout of fame. Far from being distanced in the way his earlier work was, M realizes this renewed fame is the result of the collapse of distance. His paintings now bring with them “the aura of death.”

Contemporary fiction’s conventions around encounters with art—scrutinizing it skeptically, from afar—can leave the narrators of books like Aphasia and Leaving the Atocha Station looking more like repressed neurotics than sophisticates unswayed by the vulgarities of emotion. While they can be very annoying, it’s also hard to dislike Adam and Antonio, given how much they talk about their own shortcomings. Still, there’s something in their aloofness that bears traces of Second Place’s L. And if M teaches us anything about where male artists go wrong, it’s in the fantasy of artistic freedom. Being attached—to one’s emotions, to other works—isn’t an obstacle so much as a precondition for making meaning.

At the close of Second Place, M looks at a painting that L left behind, a depiction of two half-formed figures basking in dim light, traces of what could be an earlier scene between M and her daughter. This final image is one of something unreal, reflecting a tension between unity and separation, distance and proximity. It’s a tension, M suggests, that one “never tires of watching.”