“Intimacy, says the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, is the highest value. I resist this statement at first. What about artistic achievement, or moral courage, or heroism, or altruistic acts, or work in the cause of social change? What about wealth or accomplishment? And yet something about it rings true, finally—that what we want is to be brought into relationship, to be inside, within. Perhaps it’s true that nothing matters more to us than that.”  – Mark Doty

Gazing at a painting invites a deep sense of intimacy.  At the Met, looking at Dieric Bouts’ Virgin and Child, I am thinking about the image of Mother and Child as one of the central icons of pre-20th century Western art.  Christian indoctrination aside, gazing upon this mom and baby as tropes for pure innocence and fusion– our own original innocence and that of humankind’s, and our core relationship with the other in the form of mother— all of those stimuli together have the capacity to short circuit our questioning natures and bring us to a place of pure, infantile responsiveness, before the formation of human subjectivity through representations of class or identity and all those factors that produce the category of self.  What is most powerful about that painting is how the immediacy of my apprehension of it is central to the experience of seeing it; the fact that I can take it in in an instant, like a kiss or a sock in the nose.  It is so intimate.  Unlike all those art forms that depend on time to reveal their content and pleasures –music, theater, literature, installation art– painting allows the brain to experience the thrill of instantaneity; I know immediately if I am moved or not, even if later reflections offer up different responses– and I feel the intensity of that return to my own inwardness. I experience subjectivity itself, immediately and unmediated, like the children we once were.

 

Dieric Bouts, Virgin and Child, 455–60, Oil on wood, 8 1/2 x 6 1/2 inches