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The Village Idiot | Van Gogh, New York, and the Sublimity of the City


2:00 PM, Friday February 2nd
A bull rages on Wall Street, and people are lining up. Not to see the hulking bronze mass, mind you, but to be seen with it. The subjects of their photos are themselves, and the bull cries out for someone to give him their full attention. The line of iPhones looking at their people stretches on and on, obstructing my other objective – the fearless girl. Her existence seems almost comical now – if the bull no longer inspires awe and fear, then what’s the point of her defiance? My heart implodes for them. There aren’t enough expletives to express my hatred for these people. I want to scream. I want to leave.

1:00 PM, Saturday February 3rd
To my surprise, I find a small French village on West 53rd street, on the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art. For a time I see the same starry night that Vincent did, but more importantly I feel it. Time passes. I keep looking. Time seems to stop. I keep feeling. My sublime trance is broken with the click of a camera. The woman, unsatisfied with her first attempt, steps out in front of me for another. Why! Why?

Despite seeing so many notable, breathtaking things this weekend, these two moments are the ones that dominate my thoughts. In coming to understand my distaste for each of them, I have discovered my disappointment with the City as a whole. If you’ve been to there, then you know that it’s fairly easy to distinguish between the natives and tourists. It’s a certain attitude, a certain way of carrying yourself that suggests your familiarity.

Many times this weekend I pleaded with my mom to stop “acting like a tourist.” For some reason, I would get a physical discomfort every time she asked for a photo or which places were more valuable to see. In reality, my embarrassment had nothing to do with whether we lived in the City or not. I was frustrated because she was moving too fast, and I was frustrated because she was focusing more on the reputation of the sights rather than the beauty that earned those sights their reputation. I’ve heard every metaphor – machine, show, jungle, beast – but I connect most with the City as art, in competition with every work that lines the walls of its museums.

My mother the tourist, then, is like the woman at MoMA. A snapshot is all she needs to cross New York City off her bucket list, to be able to say “Yeah, I saw it.” How does that sort of experience have any more depth than a web search? If emotions are essential for the development of worthwhile and wholesome memories, then why do we so often focus on quantity instead of quality?

Her mistake is not the only one though, because the natives are just as guilty. If the city is art, then true New Yorkers are the guards – with constant exposure the sublime is surely lost. They can make fun of tourists, sure, for being impressed with the vastness and pace of the city, but there is value in that novelty. Novelty that they may have lost. I know that my ignorance of what life there is like is vast, but in this case it may be an advantage.

What to do, then, if everyone is seeing the City as something other than it is? I don’t know, truly. Those that live there can try to approach it as a child, with eyes always open and fresh – habituation being their enemy. Us? We can slow down, step out of the riptide, and take it in, because sublimity cannot be preconceived.

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