I watched a New York Times video of Julian Schnabel’s recent opening at the Sperone Westwater gallery. When the interviewer pointed to a painting and asked The Schnab what it meant, I rolled my eyes with irritation. Schnabel looked at the painting and breaking it down said, “Well, over here are two blue lines and up here is a red line. That’s what it means.” I rewound. Watched it again.

K and I went to see Jon Pareles interview Feist as part of The New York Times Arts & Leisure Week. At one point, Pareles began to intellectualize the song constructions on The Reminder saying (paraphrasing here): “You start off singing solo and then you’re joined by a chorus of voices, you return to your community.” Feist looked at him, at the audience, smirked, back at him and then said, deliciously, “Ah, meaning.”

This is the aspect I love about interviews, about interviews with open, modest and honest artists. This is what I love about Feist, what I love about Julian Schnabel, what I love about Katie Merz. They don’t attempt to parse their own work in that same way; don’t make it their job; don’t need it. When confronted with a person who has made it their job, what else is there to do but smirk, be bemused at the attempted thesis to articulate a felt experience, a meaning so personal that to define or label it misses the point of feeling completely?

I suppose, it’s this tension that keeps critics employed, and obviously I relate to the impulse, the reflex to make sense of what you’ve heard, but I relate in a visceral, nonverbal way. I suppose that’s why it always strikes me as inane that people are trying to get at what it means because experiencing art is so individual, or rather, the experience of extracting meaning from art is so personal. Of course many things can be read as universal, but to assume this universality, to render the same emotion to everyone because of some need to articulate its meaning to a singular entity, is to me, preposterous. Of course I’m probably not articulating this very well, so for all I know this entire post is preposterous.

I’ve told this story before, and I’ve told it because it speaks to this question of identification. A dear, old and very cool friend of mine went to live in Africa for about six months. When he returned, he seemed oddly bland, vaguely uncultured. I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly he was, but after a few weeks, one night in my apartment, it occurred to me. He was no longer cool. Not long after my realization, he and I went out and I mentioned that he seemed different. He said that he knew, that while he was gone he realized that everyone he knew viewed him as a cool guy. He began to wonder about this and asked himself what exactly it was that people thought was so cool and when he put his finger on the aspect of himself that people were drawn to, the part of himself people called “cool,” that part of himself resolved, disappeared. As soon as he identified what it was about himself that drew people to him, as soon as he labeled the meaning that other people applied to him, brought to him, gave to him, he lost it. Lost the ineffable quality that drew people to him, lost his cool. It’s been over 10 years and he’s never gotten it back.

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