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À mon chevet: 'My Struggle'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
I had studied history of art and was used to describing and analyzing art. But what I never wrote about, and this is all that matters, was the experience of it. Not just because I couldn't, but also because the feelings the pictures evoked in me went against everything I had learned about what art was and what it was for. So I kept it to myself. I wandered about the Nationalgalleri in Stockholm or the Nasjonalgalleri in Oslo or the National Gallery in London and looked. There was a kind of freedom about this. I didn't need to justify my feelings, there was no one to whom I had to answer and no case to answer. Freedom, but not peace, for even though the pictures were supposed to be idylls, such as Claude's archaic landscapes, I was always unsettled when I left them because what they possessed, the core of their being, was inexhaustibility and what they wrought in me was a kind of desire. I can't explain it any better than that. A desire to be inside the inexhaustibility. That is how I felt this night as well. I sat leafing through the Constable book for almost an hour. I kept flicking back to the picture of the greenish clouds, every time it called forth the same emotions in me. It was as if two different forms of reflection rose and fell in my consciousness, one with its thoughts and reasoning, the other with its feelings and impressions, which, even though they were juxtaposed, excluded each other's insights. It was a fantastic picture, it filled me with all the feelings that fantastic pictures do, but when I had to explain why, what constituted the "fantastic," I was at a loss to do so. The picture made my insides tremble, but for what? There were plenty of clouds around. There were plenty of colors around. There were enough particular historical moments. There were also plenty of combinations of all three. Contemporary art, in other words, the art which in principle ought to be of relevance to me, did not consider the feelings a work of art generated as valuable. Feelings were of inferior value, or perhaps even an undesirable by-product, a kind of waste product, or at best, malleable material, open to manipulation. Naturalistic depictions of reality had no value either, but were viewed as naïve and a stage of development that had been superseded long ago. There was not much meaning left in that. But the moment I focused my gaze on the painting again all my reasoning vanished in the surge of energy and beauty that arose in me. Yes, yes, yes, I heard. That's where it is. That's where I have to go. But what was it I had said yes to? Where was it I had to go?

-- Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book One, pp. 207-208
The esteem of several book reviewers, James Wood among them, got me onto this Norwegian writer's autobiographical novel. The premise, that the subject of the novel is quite openly Knausgaard's own life, might promise the worst kind of navel-gazing, but the reality could not be farther from the truth. Knausgaard focuses the harshest and most focused light on his own life, scrutinizing his own feelings and shortcomings in a way that had to be difficult to write, not to mention difficult to read for those in his life. At the same time, that part of the narrative is mostly a springboard for profound reflections on death, art, and the hold other people have on us in life. This particular passage will now become a regular part of my teaching on art history, because this element of why art moves us -- which is entirely subjective -- is important to remember, lest art history become too academic.

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