For five months last year I was going to be a mother. In early spring I stared at the home pregnancy test in elated disbelief, after only three months of trying. (Before that I had had the paranoid intuition—a correct one, as it would turn out—that pregnancy would not come easily to me.) There was the impish pleasure, for those few days in March, of keeping the pregnancy a secret, one that only the two of us knew. I ended up having to tell my mother a week later, when she tried to book a flight for me on my due date—the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Then followed two and a half months of morning sickness, the waves of nausea striking like clockwork at 7:45 a.m. I told friends who asked how I was doing that I didn’t mind the retching, because at least my suffering had a purpose. Things got easier for a time, until they got much worse.
After the pregnancy ended, my husband and I went for a lot of walks. In part we just couldn’t stand to be in the house, where we had spent so many hours catatonic on the couch, where the mamaRoo, the baby bath and maternity yoga pants were still stashed in a corner of our second bedroom. But we also liked being outside for other reasons. Out there, there was evidence that life had continued, that time had not stopped. Look at all these people, going about their lives! It was like being a visitor in a quaint new town.
On one outing, we stopped to sit on a park bench. A couple approached with their baby—he must have been around five or six months old, with big, archetypal cheeks, round coins for eyes and a shock of black hair pointing in all directions, like a cartoon. “Do you want to hold him?” the dad asked. I had, apparently, been staring. “He loves people—he’s not scared of strangers.” Before I could answer, the man handed over the child and I, startled, propped him up on my lap. No stranger had ever given me his baby before. Was there something about me that telegraphed a lack, this need? The whole scene was overdetermined. But the dad was right, or close: I had wanted to hold the baby. The baby smiled—all gums—and grabbed for my glasses. I chatted with the parents for a minute while he squirmed and babbled. I handed him back to his mother.
Those first few months of the pregnancy had been both a deeply physical experience and the ultimate abstraction. Everything felt new, and yet very little had changed. An app I downloaded tried to make the process of fetal development more concrete by comparing the baby to fruits of various sizes. As time went on, I started to permit myself to imagine her: not as a kiwi or a grapefruit, but as my child. The smell of her skin, the sound of her name. The weight of her small body in my arms. What she’d be like, how she’d look—first as a baby and then as she got older. I pictured her with curly hair, like the two of us. Would it be red like my husband’s, or brown like mine? But there I stopped: my fantasies could only carry me so far.
They had given me the option to hold her at the hospital. But that isn’t how I wanted to meet her, or remember her, which in this case were the same event. I wanted to spare myself more grief. And there was something else. I felt a strange kind of duty: I had to protect the only image of her I had, even if it was no real image at all.
Late that summer, a new exhibit opened at the Art Institute in Chicago by the French artist Sophie Calle called Because—The Blind. Calle is known for art that investigates the paradoxes of relationships and the untrustworthy nature of our emotions and self-understanding. For one famous project, Take Care of Yourself, she had several experts from different fields analyze a break-up email she received from an ex-boyfriend. She documented her mother’s final hours on film and replayed them at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Calle is something of a voyeur, betraying a cold curiosity about other people’s lives that borders on obscene. In a 1981 work called The Hotel, she took a job as a cleaner in a hotel in order to photograph the beds and personal effects of the absent guests; afterward, she wrote texts accompanying the images where she tried to reconstruct their personalities. In another controversial project, she found a lost address book, called the numbers inside and asked the contacts about their impressions of the owner, and then published them in the newspaper without his knowledge or consent. The man was so upset by the stunt that he threatened legal action. Calle’s work is often called “conceptual,” but it’s less about concepts than irreducible feelings and psychological mysteries. “Confessional” is another term often bandied about in reviews and catalogs, yet she is very controlled in her dealings with emotional life; it doesn’t all hang out, she doesn’t just offer it up like a cat leaving dead mice on the doorstep. She dissects human subjectivity—her passions, the things that obsess her, the people she loves, the strangers in her midst—and then arranges the pieces delicately, wryly, with an almost sociopathic precision. “Art,” Calle has said, “is a way of taking distance.”
The Blind occupied a full room on the first floor of the modern wing. Calle began The Blind in 1986 and, over the next three years, interviewed and photographed 23 congenitally blind people who frequented an institute for the blind in Paris. She asked them, What is your image of beauty? She specified that they were to describe visual beauty, rather than sound or other sensory riches. She was prompting them, in other words, to speak about an aesthetic experience they had never directly known but that we, the viewers, presumably have. Each person’s response was printed on white paper and framed next to a portrait of the speaker. Calle then displayed photographs depicting the very things her subjects had identified as beautiful.
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Read more essays like this in our
“What is beauty for?” symposium,
such as “The Right to Beauty” by Ursula Lindsey
and “The Art of Ugliness” by Zach Fine.
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Sometimes beauty is presented in The Blind as experience, sometimes as hearsay, sometimes as a reverie or wish or wild guess. A boy came up with an itemized list: “Christmas wreaths, Saint Lucie, a nice dog, railroad stations, the Eiffel Tower, all of that is beautiful.” (Calle only partially indulged him, photographing tinsel, a statue of St. Lucy, patron saint of the blind, and the Eiffel Tower.) A girl noted that “In the Rodin Museum, there is a naked woman with very erotic breasts and a terrific ass.” (Did she touch the statue? I wondered, a little scandalized.) One woman said she thinks her husband is handsome, or she “hope[s] he is,” anyway. Another observed that her lover’s body is beautiful, that she likes “well-built men,” but included a caveat that she had never encountered “absolute perfection.”
Calle’s subjects spoke often of natural beauty: grass, mountains and, most commonly, the sea: “The most beautiful thing I ever saw is the sea,” said one man, “the sea going out so far you lose sight of it.” Pictured below were light waves on the water, receding into a blue horizon. In another, a man described a painting he received as a gift, and allowed himself to wonder about what was contained within the frame:
I had never seen boats in a picture. It has a slightly raised surface so I can feel three masts and a main sail. I often touch it in the evening. On Wednesdays there are programs about the sea. I listen to the TV and I look at that boat. The sea must be beautiful too. They tell me it is blue and green and that when the sun reflects in it, it hurts your eyes. It must be painful to look at.
I was struck, reading this, by two things. First, how beauty in his account telescopes out from the thing itself: as he scrutinizes its textures, the discovery of the painting yields a different kind of interest; curiosity engenders new curiosity; appreciation turns into wonder. The man doesn’t just return to the painting at night; he seeks out stories that other people tell about the sea, and he tries to put himself in their place. What was it that he found to be so beautiful? Was it the boat? Was it the painting, or the sea? Or was it the things he had heard about it? In any case, it can be hard to tell the difference: when we’re drawn to images, we come to them with a lengthy catalog of myths, cultural baggage and personal history that shape our emotional responses to them. And the second thing was: the eyes. When he imagines himself sighted, there on the shore gazing out over the water, what he feels is not pure pleasure, but a mix of pleasure and pain. You can want to look so badly that it will burn your eyes, even blind you, he seems to be saying. I take it he understands something about that.
The painting itself, which Calle had photographed and hung below his statement, was unremarkable—an amateurish job with fauvist pretensions, the kind of thing you might pick up at a flea market. Did anyone ever break this to him? It seemed unfair that I knew this about a picture he took to be so lovely, and he did not. If he could see, it would have just been a matter of taste—we could have debated it, or agreed to disagree, or I could have shown him a Turner. But it would have made no sense to argue with him about it. Even if I tried, I couldn’t see what he saw in the painting: it had no objective correlative in the world. It existed only as a private image, sacred and inviolable. In the photograph, the man is young with shaggy hair, and his thick lips are chapped. He looks as though he is staring straight ahead, his eyes locked in a permanent squint.
Ever since it was first displayed in the U.S. in 1989, The Blind has been accused of mocking and exoticizing its subjects. Joseph Grigely, a Deaf artist, wrote a series of “postcards” to Calle two years later, in which he criticized her for treating disability as a spectacle: “Why have you transcribed the voices of the blind into a medium to which they do not have access? What difference is there between gazing at the eyes of the blind or the labia of the Hottentot Venus?” Though the Art Institute exhibit did not receive a lot of press, one of the few major reviews, in Art in America, concurred with Grigely, adding that the work “did not bear the test of time well.” And it’s true there is something illicit about the enjoyment one takes in The Blind. It’s awkward enough to ask someone to describe the content of their dreams. It is profoundly transgressive to ask the blind to describe their innermost images of beauty and then put them on display. But the scandal and provocation of The Blind goes both ways. It’s true that Calle’s subjects “don’t have access” to our visual world, as Grigely pointed out. But we don’t have access to theirs, either.
Calle has said the inspiration for The Blind came to her after she overheard a blind person talking about how he’d seen “a beautiful movie yesterday.” What did that mean to him? Or take the example of the girl and the Rodin: How much more erotic was the sculpture in her mind than it had appeared to me? Can I ever know? The distance between our perceptions presents a challenge, a demand to account for what we see. In asking the blind “What is your image of beauty?” Calle was also aiming her question at us, the viewers. When it comes to what beauty is, can we really say we know better?
A tradition of thought dating back to the Enlightenment maintains that aesthetic experience, to be authentic, must be firsthand. “Truth is disputable; not taste,” wrote Hume. “What exists in the nature of things is the standard of our judgement; what each man feels within himself is the standard of sentiment. Propositions in geometry may be proved, systems in physics may be controverted; but the harmony of verse, the tenderness of passion, the brilliancy of wit, must give immediate pleasure.” In his book Beauty, Roger Scruton—perhaps the best-known contemporary representative of this view—repeats this sentiment in his seventh and final “platitude” about beauty: “There are no second-hand judgements of beauty. There is no way that you can argue me into a judgement that I have not made for myself, nor can I become an expert in beauty, simply by studying what others have said about beautiful objects, and without experiencing and judging for myself.” Beauty, for Scruton, is not purely subjective. It’s a “real and universal value,” but to access it one must directly confront the object and exert one’s rational capacities in response. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve heard that the Sistine Chapel is an incomparable work of art, or how many photos of it I might have seen: the only way I can know for sure that it is beautiful is to stand there, beneath that ceiling, and behold it with my own eyes.
There’s an obvious logic to Scruton’s statement—that is, after all, why he called it a platitude. But in the gallery that day, I badly wanted to resist it. I’ve never been to Rome, and all the fuss about the frescoes is what will get me there. To see Michelangelo’s artistry firsthand would deepen my vague impression of its brilliance, actualize it, maybe even undercut it—that’s always a risk. But I don’t think the initial presentiment of its beauty is wrong, or simply meaningless, just as I don’t think Calle’s subjects are deluded in grasping for beauty, even if they can’t literally see it. Maybe you will know that something is beautiful and never live to encounter it directly; that is a loss that can be felt and regretted, but it does not nullify the intuition. At minimum, it can point beyond itself. Like Michelangelo’s portrait of Adam and God in that church I’ve never seen, perhaps beauty is the kind of thing we can only ever reach for; it’s somewhere in the gap between their fingers.
Last spring, in the early months of the pregnancy, I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s seasons quartet on my commute to work each day. He wrote four short books, each named after one of the four seasons, as an introduction to the world for his soon-to-be fourth child. (I had decided to read the quartet as an introduction to my own introduction.) “Now, as I write this, you know nothing about anything, about what awaits you, the kind of world you will be born into,” Knausgaard begins in Autumn, addressing his unborn daughter. “And I know nothing about you. I have seen an ultrasound image and have laid my hand on the belly in which you are lying, that is all.” That is all I had too: a shadow on a sonogram, the heaviness in my belly, the nursery wish list. “Six months remain until you will be born, and anything at all can happen during that time, but I believe that life is strong and indomitable, I think you will be fine, and that you will be born sound and healthy and strong. See the light of day, the expression goes.” And yet we had been left in darkness.
In the exhibit, one of the men Calle interviewed said the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen came to him in a dream: it was his ten-year-old son, walking toward him. In the dream, the boy was wearing pajamas. Accompanying this statement was a photo of his son, which the blind man had taken himself. The boy was not in pajamas. The photograph was level, well composed—you wouldn’t have known it was taken by a man who couldn’t see.
The photo would appear to contradict the man’s private vision. But does it really? Is it any less striking, any less haunting? I want to say no: beauty is never so simple. It will always exceed our attempts at understanding. To confront beauty is, inevitably, to confront longing and the possibility of loss. As Lucy Sante wrote in a review in 1993, The Blind “employs hearsay in pursuit of the ineffable, in effect constructing a work of art that is only alluded to and not represented by the objects on the gallery wall.” Beauty is the absence that surrounds the work; the exhibit itself is a kind of apophatic exercise, which approaches sublimity through negation. In the final tableau, Calle’s last subject’s defiant response was the exception that proved the rule: “Beauty—I’ve buried beauty. I don’t need beauty. I don’t need images in my brain. Since I cannot appreciate beauty, I have always run away from it.” Below the statement Calle placed an empty shelf. I stared at the blank white wall until my eyes hurt and I had to look away.
Art credit: Sophie Calle, The Blind , 1986/89. Partial gift of Stuart and Judy Spence, Committee on Photography and Media Purchase Fund. Purchased with funds provided by the Comer Family Foundation. Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.