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  • John Diamond-Nigh

The united state of #unfinished

Updated: Sep 21, 2019


Years ago I was an artist-in-residence at Alfred University. It was a fabulous gig. One day the dean asked if I’d give a lecture to the student body at large. But . . .


They’re insufferable; they’re rude. On the dot of noon those who remain get up and leave; collectively they do all that they can to sabotage speakers. Some speakers just quit.


What fun! A sea of insubordination. I mulled this over at length. Instead of the usual

slide lecture, I’d spin a yarn, quickly weaving as much suspense as I could into my art-slashing murder mystery, along with the points I would have made in a conventional lecture. The scrunching, chattering, laughing disruptions grew still. Bombing raids of M&Ms stopped. Jeaned derrieres moved an inch toward the edge of their seats. And then at the moment when all would be clear–who killed Pelouse and who in fact slashed the Raft of the Medusa?–I stopped.


Five seconds of silence, then hey! . . .


Was told not to go a moment past noon. I turned and left the stage. I had made the points that I wanted to make.


Hey, f—-, you can’t just stop there . . .


You took ‘em by surprise, the president told me later, laughing.


Unfinished. Ever watch Dylan’s band? The members rarely finish a song; they eke it into closure. It’s a deeply modern trait, a trait that embodies the thrilling #ambiguities of the last century. To finish something can actually seem a little archaic now. Instead, send a poem or image in the mail, let others add to it; watch its accidents, see where it goes.

cvxI love Florence. It’s crazy how much is unfinished there. The cathedral dome, for one thing. What would it take even now to marble over that junky rubble on the top of the drum? The front of San Lorenzo remains to this day a raw cliff of bricks, intended to receive Michelangelo’s neo-classical facade. Perhaps the most famous unfinished works in that rosy-roofed city are the #“prisoners” by Michelangelo, their writhing, blunt, chunky masses juxtaposed with the laconic poise of David. Guess which sculptures I prefer? Most curious of all is the unfinished fresco of a battle scene by da Vinci in the city hall, concealed now beneath another so-so fresco. We only have copies to know what fragmentary grandeur must lie hidden under a half of an inch of plaster and lime. Unfinished and concealed.

Of course people die, money runs out, enthusiasms fade. But unfinished is a principle that matters, too. Circumstances are sometimes just the gloss of a deeper cultural imperative. Part of our fascination with da Vinci, as well as Cézanne, Bill Traylor, hip hop, is that by leaving so much unfinished, they enact, or enacted the insubordinate, fragmentary, improvisational condition of the world.


Look at Donald Trump. He finishes nothing. Much as I deplore his governance, his squiggling, fake-truth, cheating inconclusiveness gets our deep, post-modern gestalt. We will only make ourselves re-modern, re-human, re-earthen again by working through, and figuring out, this acrimonious hurricane of rivalries and uncertainties, just as Da Vinci had to work his way through the cruel fogs of late-medieval superstition toward something new and clear.


I like “unfinished” art. The chief rebuke of the Impressionists was that their work looked sketchy and undone. To most of us now it feels luminous and vital. The work of our time.


By the same token, perhaps this long, transitional condition of unfinished-ness is asking to be finished, to open to a coherent new aeon.

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