A Mouth’s Uses: Baboon Asserts

The Museum of Modern Art, New York City . . . it boasts more the mise en scène of a high-end shopping mall than a cultural treasury. The casual inattention! The open-mouth smart-phoning. Like the strollers, the art is seated with a mind more to branding than meaning—Picasso, you Macy’s, sachet your thoughtfulness due west, in high traffic! Mr. Twombly, you flashy boutique, you Claire’s. Compare the breezy situation of MoMA’s Rothkos, for example, the cross-legged passing wayfaring inconsequence of MoMA’s color-field Rothkos, with the gravity of Mark Rothko in D.C.’s Phillips Collection. There, the Rothkos may huddle tight as monks in a niche, making force in confluence. The single slit window barely summons a breath.


Baboon wonders at this development in New York. Francis Bacon’s Study of a Baboon, 1953—the Internet claims it is “not on view.” It ought not be, having terrified the Cézannes. It actually turned every tidy Renoir to ash half-way across the building—cruel bestial Zeus of a thing! But Renoir is no Semele, believe me; he’s mother to nothing that’s known the vine.


Since Baboon possesses the final mouth in all the history of art, it does not fret for being sheeted. Baboon’s discoverture is power—a kind of power. In a failed poetic attempt to study it, I wrote:


The jaw hedged, came unfit—it
ghosted free, bodying hooks to
cast from zero and tear
to zero, it rent
penumbra from shade
at minute one.


—ghosting, yes. The oil attains an eerily thin dilution—I can’t say why, but I’ve always wedded it to the rich sinuous treatment of that medium in Raphael’s La Donna Velata. For confrontation. For his veil, Baboon has a fence.


Baboon wonders at this development. The historians at MoMA say (breezily) that “tension can be felt in the placement of the fence, which is ambiguous; it appears to be simultaneously in front of and behind the tree in the foreground.” Mmhm. It is rather a joy to think of the fine distance a fence makes, the tree it divides thereby.


Has Baboon ever been “on view,” really? To see the urgency of its twisted paw, nails cut in white, the slashing prehensile tail, the dull purple points in its chest like a bruise looked at in time-lapse? Being a lover of Medusa, I see the snakes everywhere: tree limbs, grass, fence-wire. But nothing is struck stone here; the treatment of the oil is violent, motile; I see everywhere a fuse at perpetual six-ticks from detonation. Nor does it seek to petrify, though many are stone to its implication.


The moral vegan is votary to Baboon, and I lovingly project my vehemence on her, I fancy its mouth is mine, that my vehemence has teeth like his.


Her! Its! His!


Beneath his sheet, Baboon thinks of Thoreau: “Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep.”


How does a man begin to see he is sleeping? Mona Lisa, that dullard, smiles in sleep across the Atlantic. Before they were turned to ash, paintings of stupid stupid children in sun-hats by Renoir sleep-smiled dumbly. The people file by. Without the capacity to say to us, Why, or to say from its servitude, Help, the animal makes some sound nevertheless. Look at the cow and see a being weary for being kept. Like you. Look at the stallion pacing in his pen, and see. In stillness, sheeted, Baboon.


An historian comes across an impassive thing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It is not on view; it abides beneath view, though it is seen. What cry can stir this walking sleeping man, historian to his own living, walking marker of time in shoe-heel clicks, sensor simply of what his belly has always previously been?


Joseph Spece.