You are familiar with “details” that are called out in works of art. You know, they are the smaller pictures that sit below the featured photo of a masterwork in one of those unwieldy books on the history of art. Perhaps the detail captures an extended hand, a flower, the embroidery on a piece of fabric, a small dog. The detail’s intent is to call your attention to something in the painting that a less than careful observer might miss, or dismiss as insignificant. The consequences of missing the detail don’t necessarily change one’s capacity to enjoy the work but may deprive the observer of its fullness. I’m not suggesting that one misses what the artist intended to convey as I have adopted the position of an artist friend of mine who believes that the artist relinquishes ownership of their work’s meaning to the observer. Having said that, appreciation of detail potentially reveals entirely new levels of understanding. The 15th Century artist and monk Fra Angelico painted the event known as the Annunciation many times. This is the story conveyed in Luke’s Gospel of the angel who comes to Mary, telling her that she will conceive by the power of the holy spirit and bear a son who shall be called by the name Jesus and that he will be the son of God. The details of Fra Angelico’s annunciation paintings are striking- two central characters-one stands, the other sits, Mary’s arms crossed over her chest, a small dove descends from above, there is a book on Mary’s lap, a garden in the background, a Lilly in the angel’s hand, the arched structure in which this exchange happens, the column supporting the arches stands between and visually separates the angel and Mary, the exquisite embroidery on the angel’s gown, the colors in the angel’s wings, the blue shawl draped over Mary’s shoulders. The details in Fra Angelico’s annunciation frescoes enable us to read the story of the annunciation on multiple levels according to our desire to attend to detail.
I listened to an interview with a writer on NPR who spoke of the many revisions he made to his manuscript before he deemed it done. As he reviewed and re-reviewed, he said he attended to detail in order to create intimacy. Perhaps this intimacy is the greatest reason for attention to detail. For the artist/author, it is how she details her characters that constructs intimacy between creator and created- the author and her character. The author/artist chooses how much of this (s)he wishes to share with their observer/reader. And the level of care we bring to our observations shapes the impact of the encounter between art and observer. But consider how some small piece, some detail of a larger work has helped shape your relationship to it. John Updike had a way of creating and then exposing such merciless detail in his characters as to make our relationship, for example, with Harry Angstrom so intimate that it was at once unbearable and compelling.
So, why the musing on detail? Well, last night as I stood at the bathroom sink brushing my teeth, my German Shepard stood beside me looking up expectantly. Every night she comes into the bathroom as I brush my teeth and I squeeze a small amount of toothpaste onto my finger that she indelicately eats it off my finger tip. This is an event that happens virtually every night with no witnesses. It’s just me and the dog. There is no significance to it except insofar as it is a detail of my life (and Oona’s) that I happened to take note of and found some peculiar satisfaction in this petty act of self awareness. I went to bed thinking about details and life and how astonishingly rich our lives are. Still, most of it goes unnoticed both by ourselves and others as we go about the business of living out our strangely fascinating and complex lives in relative obscurity.