There is a hole in the wall in my bedroom, at the highest point where the ceiling attaches to the outside wall of the house, about ten feet above the floor. The hole is sealed by a window, and through this window I can just see the highest tip of the tallest tree, beyond that the sky, and finally, anything the sky might hold. The hole is roughly twenty-four by thirty-six inches, which is to say this is not a big hole, not a big window, and there isn’t always a lot to see out of it.
I call it the “moon window.” It could just as easily be called a “sun window,” or a “sky window,” or a “star window.” I’m sure you get the idea. It’s a window after all, and windows do a very few things: they keep air and other stuff from coming in while allowing light to pass through. They frame a piece of the world, allowing one to see, in limited dimensions, a fraction of the reality that exists on the other side.
My moon window does one or two other things: at night it allows me to count the stars when the night sky is clear, pinpoints of cold light not bright enough to light the room, but piercing enough to affect my experience of the night with their display. As if the star-show has been choreographed for me alone, I bear witness to the night as I prepare to sleep, and absent a critical mind I approve every performance with simple gratitude. On other nights, true to its name, the moon appears in my window and light does fill my room. On these nights the light makes it difficult to sleep, but I don’t complain. There is something in moonlight to be deciphered, though I have yet to discover what it is.
There is a final effect of the moon window. As the dawn breaks to the east and attempts the impossible task of warming the Pacific Ocean just across the way from my house, the subtle glow filters through the high window and disturbs my slumber with a natural, even gentle caress, urging me to wake without need for alarms or the overhead snap of a sudden artificial light. I suspect this is the true nature of the moon window – to be an organic alarm clock for the healthy awakening nature intended.
All of these things happen through my moon window. I had never seen a moon window prior to moving into this house. Now that I have it I think I should never be without it again. The mechanics of the window are simple, but the effect, and the vision it creates, are beneficial to my health and have informed me of something relevant to the creative life: the window offers a canvas by which pieces of reality can be seen, sections at a time, as they happen. This is not unlike the moments of a story, painting, song, poem, or play.
Stendhal is credited with saying that “the novel is a mirror carried along a main road” – the novelist’s duty, he continues, is to record only what is reflected, passing no judgement and refraining from editing the image. Captured on the page, or the canvas, or (with today’s technology) the screen, this reflection of life is to be imitated so well that it appears true to what life is about. As with the moon window the artist can see only so much of reality in the mirror, and in that glimpse must replicate that reality to its highest fidelity. What artists create, therefore, is not reality, but a true-to-life imitation. We intend to capture the sense that what is being seen or read is real, that it actually happened, leaving the audience with the sense that this work, this “art,” is more real than anything they have seen with their own eyes. This happens because the artist, through successful mimesis, has brought something else in addition to an accurate reflection: the artist also brings the world of emotion, idea, and meaning.
This is what artists really create: a still-life of a moment, seen at a glance, where some hidden value is exposed by the artist’s brush, or by the way a section of sky is frozen in the pane of a small window that looks only upon the sky. All there is to focus on is that moment, and in that moment the human mind seeks to connect with the world. Good art allows this moment to exist perpetually. Art museums rely on this phenomenon. If our species remained unmoved by still moments there would be no need for museums, much less artists to fill them.
Human beings exist sans panoramic vision. We can see neither far into the future, nor through walls, nor into the dark, nor across vast distances. We are by virtue of our physical limitations very near-sighted. The geometry of our modern world favors this myopia by surrounding us with frames within frames for the purpose of identifying sights that we may observe for pleasure, for learning, and for edification (and for the opposite of these things as well). In art it may be said that all creations exist within a frame. Within the frame we find the context for the artistry: a stage for a play, a page for a book, a screen for a movie, a field for an installation (or a mountain, a lake, a planet).
The point being that the good work of the artist is to accurately record meaningful moments, leaving no detail behind, resulting forever in secrets revealed of what it means to live the life (or die the death) of a human. Artists create still-life. Sometimes this happens in rapid series, such as with a motion picture, and sometimes over the short duration of a love song. But it is all, more and less, mere moments. These moments are akin to our memories, the place where we truly live. What happened minutes ago arrests our attention far more frequently than what is happening in the instant before us. Just as when the moon, at first so intrusive in the night, has passed from the window, and in the ensuing darkness, when the light is gone, the dreamer recounts the brief moment when the room was filled with light, and the window glowed as brightly as ever it did during the day.