Friday, November 19, 2010

Art as Solace of the Mind

Show and Tell

"Majesty of God" by Judy Franklin, 2010

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

"I don't know much about art, but I know what I like."

"To each his own."

You'll be happy to know I'm not going to get into a lecture on art appreciation or how beauty should be defined. These popular phrases above reflect the subjective nature of our cultural encounters with the creative arts, and there's little point in anybody telling anybody else what they should or shouldn't appreciate.


Yet I'm not convinced that, overall, our society has done a good job of maintaining a beneficial interest in the creative arts. Maybe because over time, we've let subjectivism generate a nihilistic mindset concerning things that used to be important. Particularly in western civilization, we've become extremely pragmatic and efficient, to the point where if something doesn't serve a practical function, save us money, or make something easier, we're not interested in it. So art loses its importance.

Which is a bit perplexing, considering that compared with less sophisticated epochs in history, Westerners have more free time and expendable income at our disposal than ever before. But many of us fill this time with quantitative things like superiority-oriented sports, destination-centric travel, instant-pleasure amusements, passive movies, intense video games, and other goal-oriented activity. We measure things by scores, distances, fun, proficiency, and the like.

Just as I'm not going to set parameters for that which constitutes art, I'm not going to rate the ways we spend our free time as good or bad. I'm simply trying to point out that very little of what we choose to do involves the solace of the mind.

By "solace of the mind," I'm not talking about dumping everything that's in your brain into a bucket. Or abdicating common sense, propriety, and ethics. By "solace of the mind," without sounding like a New Age guru, I'm trying to convey the concept of engaging with beauty for beauty's sake.

Consider the infectious joy conveyed by the "flash culture mob" in Macy's downtown Philadelphia store a couple of weekends ago. Several hundred singers from the Philadelphia area convened in the main hall of the former Wanamaker's store and broke out into an unannounced rendition of the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah. Shoppers, caught off-guard, were delighted by the "random act of culture" which has been viewed on YouTube over 3.6 million times.

At the risk of sounding flaky, esoteric, or goofy, may I suggest that as our society has given up on the classic arts, which were intentionally designed to express beauty, we've lost a little bit of the humanity that has helped to smooth life's rougher edges? Is that a silly thing to suggest? I realize that here, my brave attempt at not telling you what I think good art is has faltered a bit; I can't deny having the "Hallelujah Chorus" soaring throughout the vast atrium at Macy's proved far more pleasurable than if it had been a rock anthem instead. But take the question in the spirit with which it is intended: have we forgotten how beneficial good art can be?

Museum attendance across the country has stagnated, dependant more on clever marketing and hip new buildings than the public's insatiable demand for timeless paintings, sculpture, and other visual media.

Symphonies, orchestras, opera and ballet companies, and live theater troupes have all begun strategizing for both their short-term and long-term survival as their audiences consolidate into an older, smaller, and less committed demographic. Perhaps now more than ever, the arts are perceived as being elitist and old-fashioned, which society at large automatically translates into unnecessary and hard to appreciate. Fun is far more easily obtainable from pop culture, even if pop culture doesn't provide the same rewards.

Which is the real issue here, isn't it? Not all art is as universally appreciated as the "Hallelujah Chorus," which while not everybody's cup of tea, certainly didn't cause anybody to erupt in anger in Macy's. But how many of those shoppers would prefer purchasing tickets to a rock concert instead of using free tickets to hear Messiah in concert? See what I mean?

Some paintings require more than a quick glance for their beauty to be seen. Sometimes you have to sit still and be patient as a musical score unfolds. Most sculpture requires at least a couple of complete 360's for the entire piece to make sense. Yet today's culture actually conditions most of us to expect instant gratification instead of expending much effort for a reward.

For something to be a solace to the mind, how much extra work is involved, really? Not that people can't find comfort in their favorite non-classical pursuits. But should we expect all of the bits of information and stimulation we stuff into our heads to be sufficiently dislodged by quick and/or easy entertainment? Can we mentally relax with good art in the same way we enjoy a video game or skiing? All pastimes provide fleeting encounters with enjoyment, but the afterglow of good art sticks with me longer than the afterglow of a B movie. Maybe I'm just different that way?

Not that art provides a magical cure-all, or is the fountain of youth. Great art can cure a gloomy day, but it can't cure diabetes. Nor am I advocating a revolt against pop culture entirely, because moderation in a variety of activities and interests can be like diversification in one's financial portfolio.

Just don't dismiss good art as irrelevant or outdated. And don't assume I'm some snobby Renaissance man who can tell his libretto from his ritornello. I'm not crazy about opera, and I don't care for ballet at all. But play anything by Bach, Beethoven, and sometimes even Mahler, and my mind can find its solace quite nicely, thank you very much.

You don't even have to pay a lot to get a bit of culture. My church hosts an annual arts festival, and the photo in today's essay shows one of the entries, a cut-glass and crushed-glass mosaic by Judy Franklin. Entitled "Majesty of God," Franklin's work uses the birth of Christ to express a grand theme of the Incarnation with a pastel palette suitable for swaddling an infant.

So maybe it will never hang in MoMA or the National Gallery. But it's good therapy to consider the crushed glass as not only snow, perhaps, but diffusers of light. Amidst all of the pastel coloration rises the golden sun (Christ as "beauteous Heavenly Light") and the stark red field punctuating the cross. Indeed, at the center of Franklin's work is the Cross of Christ, Trinitarian triangle, and further afield, a beveled gold radiance.

Why is it good therapy? For one thing, each of these components gives testimony to the deity and holiness of Christ. Perhaps we don't actually see a visual representation of Christ, but that's not an entirely unBiblical consideration, is it? Franklin does not concern herself with what God Incarnate may have looked like, because she's creating a depiction of His majesty, which for us today is far more important.

If you just glance at this work and tick off its obvious attributes; "broken glass: check; fang-looking things: check; pretty colors: check; cross in the middle: check;" then you're not engaging with the message Franklin has woven into each of her components.

Here's a challenge for you: don't look at this photo - gaze at it instead. No matter how much theology and doctrine you know about Christmas, what is this composition telling you about the Christ child? As you work these truths over in your mind, do you realize how things you were thinking about before you began reading today's essay here have been placed on your brain's back burner?

That's the solace of the mind I'm talking about.

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