Dark Rooms: Simon Schama’s “The Power of Art”

In 2008 I moved out on my own, like completely on my own, like no roommates (good riddance), no dorms, nothing but me and a room. I was just about to start my first semester at UB, so a couple days before the start of class I moved into a tiny but still pretty comfortable studio apartment a few blocks north of the Washington Monument, on Calvert Street. The initial weeks were a mess. It was mid-August, so: hot. And, BGE wouldn’t come for almost two weeks—something to do with the previous tenants not paying their bill—so when I was at home, which I tried to be as little as possible, I sat around as the day squeezed me out onto the linoleum floors, and at night I tried to savor every crisp drop of the coldest beer I could find at the local liquor store.

I’ve never been happier to go to class than during those weeks. After class, I went directly to the library, picked a spot in a study room and rooted myself to the chair. The glittering potential and resultant optimism I felt signing the lease had started slipping into some kind of maelstrom of stress as the hot, dark days turned to weeks. This was five years ago. Though, in retrospect, it wasn’t that bad. Like most things that don’t physically hurt you—and even some that do—problems seem bigger and the barbs longer as they’re happening; what, in the moment, stresses us out, when looked at differently, big-picture-wise, are just mild inconveniences. Those first weeks on Calvert were such weeks. Painful in its dull time, chock full of boredom and stubbed toes and unanswered emails and uncharged cell phones that sat on the bed next to me like a pouty and spiteful child, unwilling to acknowledge my presence.

Petty stuff. But, I also look back on those first couple weeks with a strange curiosity and maybe even fondness, though closer to a surreal but not unhappy dream. There was something about living in a new part of town, in a dark, still unfamiliar apartment, with all the ambient creeks and unfamiliar sounds and echos in the pipes, and the thick, viscous darkness in a city burning with light, all of which gave me the impression I had begun to vanish, something had begun to vanish, but only half-way, like a sojourner a couple floors above a ghost city. From the humid darkness, the new, cheap Ikea furniture nailed into the shadows looked vague and liquid at the edges. The tick tock of the ceiling fan, a stoic constant. The humid, bowling wind of passing cars on 83, five blocks east, and the tapping thrum of police choppers downtown, sketching a far-away outline of the city. Time was round and heavy. Each hour had a new face.

No one had taught me to notice things like this: quiet things. No one could have taught me, or anyway that’s what I thought; they had to be learned in a dark and empty apartment. That, no one can ever teach one to savor small moments by telling them to savor small moments seems a given. Rather it is learned, a type of consideration passed on as an intrinsic property embedded in culture (or not), a value that hangs over the stories we tell, like a fog. It’s this contemplation, a meditation on the layers of experience only revealed through the emptying suck of boredom, that demands one pay an absurd and piercing kind of attention to things that either seem to have little value or whose value is not given with a casual glance—things that  require patience. Much of that has been lost somewhere in under the soda machine of our heritage. What makes up today’s popular entertainment rewards the casual glance, insists that we indulge in the gloss finish, asks nothing us and insists we ask nothing of what content or context lies beneath its allure. Much of the time there is none, or at least nothing we would like to know about.

It’s likely that part of the reason I was thinking about this contemplative kind of boredom during those electricity-less weeks, was, well, in part, because I had no choice (what else was I going to do), but it’s also worth mentioning that I wasted much my evenings—before my laptop battery died— in watching Simon Schama’s “The Power of Art,” a BBC special aired a couple years back and which Langsdale used to hold in its collection—the DVD has since been lost, but not the accompanying book. Schama’s is not a scholarly work; it’s is a love letter to art, to the art that has affected one man. The series is truly powerful. And while the series doesn’t directly address boredom, it does, in dealing with how one understands and appreciates art, almost by default, address the rewards of sustained (sometimes boring) attention. As Schama points out in his beautiful and poignantly personal essay on the color-field paintings of Mark Rothko, contemplation and time are jittering and ephemeral  gifts that hang in air around every moment, and all one need do to acquire said gifts is to stop and look. This is an underlying theme throughout “The Power of Art”: the strange beauty of the world reflected in the works of great artists, which art works, then, in a Mobius-strip type of loop, reflect back onto the world how truly bizarre it is, how strange that we walk on this planet, seeing, doing the things we do.

Habit is a double edged sword: at once bearing a familiar element to an otherwise absurd existence, but, while doing so, deadening us to how unpredictable and unreal the real world really is. The weeks in the dark forced me out of almost all of my habits, forced me to a place I tried to drown in smart phones and Facebook, and, like some great art, bored me to tears before it opened to what lies behind, that vague something that has no real name, and gives each boring hour a face like a dream.  

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