Can you imagine a week without news? Without television? Without
the internet? I've done it.
I recently spent five days in Venice, at the opening of the Biennale
-- the bi-annual international art exhibition. It is the oldest art fair
in the world, going back to 1895, and has been held regularly ever since
then except during the two World Wars.
Artists from nearly 80 countries are participating -- some in their
country's permanent pavilion in the public gardens, others in the
cavernous Arsenale that was once a rope factory. There are many
additional exhibitions in museums and private art galleries -- in all, a
garden of visual delights that will run from now into November.
While I was absorbing this feast, the world went on. The city of
Venice, swarming with tourists, seemed untouched and immune to anything
outside itself. It's not that time stood still -- the big booming clock
in the Piazza San Marco makes sure you remember the hours. But rather,
time seemed indifferent. Another hour, another day, another year, another
century... Venice has seen it all, and survived intact. Nothing can
really surprise this city, which is so full of surprises. Even the huge
cruise ships, which are now (outrageously) allowed to sail down the Grand
Canal, appear to be silent and humble. They are passing through a time
I was in that time warp, too, and I didn't try to find my way out. I
languished in it, floated in it like a bobbling gondola. The war in Iraq,
the G-8 Summit, the squabbling American Congress, the plummeting Hong Kong
stock market -- they were on another planet, not here on the Adriatic
I believe we all need this kind of interlude from time to time -- a
break from our routines and our daily distractions. For a few days, or
even a few weeks, we need to turn off the television, the telephone, the
computer, and resist the urge to buy a newspaper. (Well, maybe a peek now
and then, over a cappuccino.) It seems draconian, but it's in the grand
tradition of spiritual practice: the retreat, the refuge, the sanctuary.
Clearly, you don't have to go to a monastery or a mountaintop; simply
traveling to another place, even a bustling city like Venice, can give you
a fresh, mind-clearing perspective. It releases you from the familiar,
uproots you from the habitual. It reminds you that there is more in this
world than 30-second soundbites and drunken heiresses and presidential
For there is the world of art, and there is the world of artifice.
We live too much in the latter realm. We live with the ready-made, the
synthetic, the ersatz, the air-brushed, the knock-off, the cut-rate, and
the early-bird special.
The slogan of the Biennale this year should give us pause: "Think
with the Senses, Feel with the Mind."
It sounds like a paradox, or a Zen riddle. But it is telling us to
pay more attention to the intelligence of our senses, and to put our mind
where our heart is.