Small, unassuming, profound
Art can have a profound effect upon us. I remember standing the midnight-to-4 a.m. watch on a troop transport on its way to Okinawa during the last year of World War II and looking down into the pitch-black ocean with something very close to terror. I was totally alone for the first time in my life, and confronting a war that seemed unending and endlessly destructive. I didn't know who I was or what I was doing. And worse, I seemed ridiculously insignificant in a universe so huge and complex that I couldn't even begin to understand it or my place within it.
I remember exchanging a few words with another soldier, glancing down at the ocean and shuddering at its depth - and then suddenly, without warning, the image of Morris Graves's ''Bird Singing in the Moonlight'' flashed before me. Immediately, something inside me relaxed. I began to feel wonderfully, miraculously at peace with myself, with the universe, and with whatever the war might bring.
Although especially significant because of the occasion, that was neither the first nor the last time art has affected me that way. From the age of 11, when I discovered Rembrandt and knew he was a friend and ''confidant,'' to only yesterday, when the work of a young painter gave me a strong, singing surge of hope for the future of mankind, I have been reassured, amused, challenged, and inspired by various works of art. In every case, I've felt keenly grateful to the person whose pictorial image helped pull me through a difficult or confusing moment by giving me a fleeting and healing glimpse of the beauty and wholeness of life, or a clue to its meaning.
I've learned I'm far from alone in this. Many benefit from art in this fashion - if not from painting, then from poetry, music, dance, or any of the other forms of art. The ability to reveal truth, after all, is not limited to one type of creative effort.
Even so, there is one kind of art particularly precious to me. It is generally small and unassuming, exists as often on paper as on canvas, and is so perfectly realized and endlessly illuminating that it can easily be absorbed and kept shining within us for the rest of our lives. We may forget its presence at times, and wonder if it has lost its effectiveness, but when the need arises it emerges with precisely the insight, intuition, or encouragement we require.
Such art need not be serious or solemn. My memory of Klee's ''Twittering Machine'' has caused me to smile at times when life seemed oppressive. And Calder's delicate mobiles, Miro's colorful images, and Steinberg's lightheaded satires have reminded me at crucial moments that life can indeed be pleasant as well as fun.
Some art is so deeply moving, however, that we tend to keep it at a distance, and to call upon it only for very special occasions. Several people have told me they couldn't live with a Rembrandt, because it would make too great an emotional demand on them. And others have said they prefer to keep the pictures on their walls as light and general as possible.
I find this unfortunate, if perhaps understandable. It's good, I believe, to live with something that makes demands, that causes us to question the banality, vulgarity, and spiritual indifference so much of our culture seems to take for granted. And art, because of its ability to embody depth, wit, warmth, and character in lovely and captivating images, strikes me as a particularly painless and effective way to learn how to acquire more of those qualities for ourselves.
Not all art, of course, is easy or accessible, and neither does it all belong in homes. Much is so broad in scope, large in size, and weighty in meaning that it must be approached as one would an architectural wonder or a grove of redwood trees. Viewing Michelangelo's ''Last Judgment'' or El Greco's ''Burial of Count Orgaz'' is a pilgrimage event, an occasion so grand that it lifts us out of our everyday selves and makes us overwhelmingly aware - if only for a few minutes - of the scope of human greatness.
Fine and good, but we also need art that is more intimate and personal, more compact and ''portable,'' that we can treasure and carry with us throughout our lives.
Graves' ''Bird Singing in the Moonlight'' is such a work, as are Blake's ''When the Morning Stars Sang Together''; Durer's ''Young Hare''; the fourth state of Rembrandt's etching ''The Three Crosses''; Goya's print ''The Dead Branch''; Redon's best florals; Munch's ''The Cry''; Klee's ''Dance You Monster to My Sweet Song''; several of Giacometti's figures; and many, many others.
Anyone who loves art will be able to add his or her special favorites, and some individuals will add dozens, since they don't at all care for the kind of painting and sculpture that takes up so much space in our museums and other public places.
I, too, have a special affection and respect for art so distilled that it remains with us as clearly and provocatively as Blake's ''Tyger, Tyger, burning bright/In the forests of the night,'' or Shakespeare's ''To be, or not to be.'' Such images don't just sit passively within us but bubble away asking questions and suggesting new ways to respond to life. In that respect they are like seeds planted in fertile ground that germinate over the years and bear fruit whenever the occasion demands. In some quarters, such art doesn't rate as highly as the monumental works of the old masters.
But I'm not at all certain. Is an eagle, after all, more significant than a sparrow? Or a rosebush less alive than a giant oak?