Sam Anderson-Ramos is a fiction writer with a background in art history, and also a real person. This piece is adapted from a 27 May 2013 interview at The Bourgeoisie Pig in Lakeview, where we both ordered paninis. I specifically told Sam not to let me eat my whole sandwich. He specifically forgot and I ate it all in one go. It was delicious.
“Why this painting?” I ask. “Why does it keep coming up?”
“I’m not sure.” Sam’s eyes are fixed into the flat contours of the Mona Lisa, not so much on it as through it, into something else.
In this the fictive reality there are two avatars, not people so much as their thinly cast shadows; a third entity, Mona Lisa, as present here as ever she is within our collective imagination; and a fourth, a wall peeking through a wall.
“Do you feel anything when you see it?” He asks me.
“Not any emotion. Just this…weight.”
Our Lady of the Arts, patron of parody and cultural transcendence Lisa de Gioconda watches us both with the same all-seeing gaze she casts on the walls when the room is empty.
“I once had this internship as an interpretive guide,” Sam says. “People would come into the museum and I had to talk to them about the work, get them to explain what they were reacting to, to deepen the experience. You know, get more out of it.”
“What a weird job to have.”
“It was weird, and really intimidating. But you know, most people were into it, depending I guess on the experience they were looking for. I’m drawn to Art History because it deepens my understanding, and that brings me closer to what I’m seeing. But I don’t necessarily want to talk to someone about it.
“At the same time, though,” he says after a pause, “I want to be understood. So do you, and so does everyone. We talk about art because we want to express how we feel; it’s how we build community. And that—that’s what Art History is. A conversation, albeit one that’s lasted for centuries.”
“A conversation that gives the present meaning.”
“What do you think about it?” I ask him.
“Mona. No, forget Mona—about Art in general. When you look at a painting, what are you looking for?”
“Something honest.” He grins. “Does that sound like bullshit?”
“I don’t know what bullshit sounds like anymore.”
“I appreciate skill. I look for thoughtfulness—I get into work that looks like the artist really considered what they wanted to do. And I enjoy story. Before the 20th century, painting was much more concerned with story. Stories make me feel things. I want to have a reason to talk about those feelings.”
“Is that why you write?”
“Sure, yes.” He pauses again, reading the empty air as if somewhere between he and Mona Lisa are his thoughts, spelled out in invisible ink. “Writing doesn’t make me special. But it makes me feel special. And the things I want to talk about, these whimsical, philosophical ideas that wouldn’t matter otherwise, exist in this getaway place, a space where I can focus on what’s important to me.
“I write a lot of non-fiction but I keep coming back to fiction. With an essay, there’s a lot of tradition you have to follow if you want to have it taken seriously. There’s educated baggage. Like the wine sommelier. You get an education to pick up all these nuances, but you could just drink it and say what you think. Both are valid.
“Complaining about contemporary art is valid criticism, but when people say they don’t like it because they don’t understand it—it’s the baggage they don’t understand, not the work.”
Sol LeWitt said once that art is a vehicle for the transmission of ideas. Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.
Sam continues, “Essays are built around trying to prove something, about working backwards from experience.”
“To prove what you already know.”
“Yeah. But Fiction is like art; it’s created for the experience, whatever that may be. When there are fewer boundaries, you have more tools to say what you really mean.”
Sol LeWitt also said: when artists make art, they shouldn’t question whether it is permissible to do one thing or another.
“My dad calls me Mona Lisa,” I tell him. “Since I was little.”
He wakes from a trance. “Oh yeah?”
“There’s a word—tocayo—that means, someone with the same name. But as I understand it, there’s some implication of friendliness, of shared destiny. Mona Lisa,” I am looking closely at the painting observing me from some distance, “is my tocayo.”
The polished wood is cool against my back, impossibly cool and smooth and comfortable. “This is a dream, right? Tell me Lady Lisa, what do you think of that?”
Mona Lisa smiles but does not respond.
In the fictive reality, as in dreams, there are no clocks to tick out time; the lines between self and other are blurred. There are only hands and faces. But even reality is a construct you can, with practice, learn to augment.
Continue reading » the bold and the beautiful
This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.