Robert Lax on Art as a Mirror and Guide to Understanding

Lax writings and photographs inside a reflection of his silhouette. © Michael N. McGregor

In my conversations with Robert Lax back in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was spending time with him every year, we talked about art many times. He saw art as a guide for people but also a mirror, in which they could see our own responses to the world more clearly and understand them better. Here’s a slightly edited portion of one of those conversation:
 
MNM: What is the purpose of art?
 
RL: Well, I’ll talk figuratively for a second. Just as Virgil could lead Dante into hell and up as far as he could and Beatrice could lead Dante the rest of the way up to heaven, art is a guide. Art is a bridge or a guide or a tour guide that leads you along to upper levels. It doesn’t drag you along by any means. At most it coaxes you or invites you. More like that: it invites you along.
 
…You might think, if you’d never seen any art or read any poetry, that your dreams and things that go beyond the ordinary in your solitary moments were yours alone and you might consider them a problem. Or you might consider your reactions to what someone said, which seemed so elaborate and beyond what in the ordinary course of things you’d expect them to be, to be troubling. But fortunately somebody learned to write about them, somebody learned to put them on stage, and that helps the whole community know how to understand—not just deal with, but understand—and even appreciate those moments.
 
MNM: I’m thinking about the phrase from Blake: “the doors of perception.” Is that akin to what you’re saying about art?
 
RL: Yes. I think that’s exactly it. For example, people analyze dreams—since Freud, at least—to find out what dreams tell them about their problems, but dreams serve so much more of a function for us than just letting us know what our problems are. It’s a whole world and in a sense you might think that art serves the same function in a community that a dream serves in the psyche of an individual.


When I asked Lax how this related to his latest books, which, at that time, contained mostly journal entries, he mentioned his small book 27th & 4th, composed of descriptions of people he saw passing that corner in New York from his office at Jubilee magazine in the 1950s. Here’s what he said about writing it:
 
RL: I had a friend, Jacques Lowe, a photographer, who used to practice photography by snapping people as they walked quickly past a low narrow door, and I thought I could do the same thing with writing. So I would just describe, quickly describe, everyone who went down the block as though I was a camera or something like that. I described them as I saw them and as I would talk to myself about them. So there would be jokes about them. I wasn’t trying to be objective or something like that. I was seeing them just as I saw them, talking about them just in my own language.
 
What I’m trying to do, in a sense, is bear witness—not false witness—to life as I see it and as I like it—as I love it—whatever it is, if it attracts me, and most of it does.
 
Lax is saying many things here, but I want to focus on three in particular:

1. Artists need to begin by paying attention: seeing what is really there, but also noting their responses to it.
 
2. Artists need to risk taking their interior life into the outside world, not merely to express it but in hopes that others will see their reflection in it and understand their own thoughts and responses better.
 
3. The patient seeking of one’s own understanding about even the most common of life’s moments can lead a community to a better place.
 
While Lax was talking primarily about his own approach to writing and making art, he was also showing all of us how to foster understanding in a community and help that community rise to a higher level, whether it’s only group of friends or an entire nation. We all need to seek to see more clearly and express our reactions to what we see more honestly, bearing witness—not false witness—to life as it truly is, with understanding as our goal.

A selection from 27th & 4th

(Note: This post originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Lax Newsletter. To subscribe, click here and look for the “subscribe” button on the left-hand side of the page as you scroll down.)

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