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van gogh

I am sitting in my car in the parking garage of the local mall, waiting to chauffeur my granddaughter home after a shift at the food court. It’s one of the perks of being a grandfather; we get to talk on the ride. But I have been  misinformed and I’m an hour early. No problem, I sit back in the shade of the parking garage and pop in a CD of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, the heartbreaking beauty of which always leaves me weeping.

Outside, in the sun, the breeze blows the branches and leaves of a tree in eccentric and seemingly random arcs. A whole tree doesn’t blow this way or that, but becomes a symphony of animated parts, very like a dancer. Behind the tree, in the distant sky, brilliant white thunderheads rise against the blue; they are the source of the fresh breeze that moves my tree.

It is a moment of epiphany — a pulling back of the veil. It is one of those instant recognitions of intense beauty, the kind that makes your insides swell and overflow through your eyes. It is the thing about such moments that dozens of shoppers coming out of the mall and finding their cars can see the same thing and not be overwhelmed because seeing the beauty requires being ripe for its discovery. It is available there for anyone to see, but most of the audience — like me most of the time — are preoccupied and so the moment escapes and they are robbed of one of those times that transfigures the mere act of living and gives one a reason to be grateful.milky way 1

At such times, it is occasionally possible to be misled into believing that the world is truly a beautiful place and that we just don’t take the time to notice. The beauty is overwhelming in its persuasion. I’m not talking here about pretty scenery or colorful flowers, but about a metaphysical insight into the animating spirit of the cosmos. It is the sense one gets if you find yourself in an unpopulated region of the planet and can see at night the bright gash across the sky that we call the Milky Way. You sense something bigger, transcendent, sublime. It is both profoundly beautiful and also more than a bit scary.

One has a memory trove of such moments — and they almost all come in brief flashes; I’m not sure how we could stand it for any length of time. I felt it one dawn at the beach in South Carolina, staring east at the twilight getting brighter. At the moment the sun popped the horizon, when its movement against the stationary line dividing ocean and sky becomes apparent, like a second hand instead of a minute hand on a clock, I got dizzy, almost lost my balance on the sand, because instead of seeing the sun rise above the horizon, I felt as if I were at the top of a planetary ferris wheel, jerked forward toward the sun; I was moving, not the sun. The light played on the waves, dividing the lit from the shadowed water in a shifting network of obsidian black and glowing copper. The effect lasted only a few seconds before the quotidian world reasserted itself into a familiar sunrise, but the memory of that instant is burned into my mind with a fury and insistence that informs now every sunrise, even when I no longer lose my balance.

Arch Cape

Many years ago, I went to the Pacific Ocean with a woman I was crazy about. We rented a cottage on the Oregon coast and after a night of playing geography on her body and memorizing it (so that I knew every swell and bulge, every mole and wrinkle on it), when the morning came, we stayed in bed until our consciences ached. We smelled of each other and reveled in it, our muscles were sore. When Robin finally got up, she said, “I’m going to make breakfast this morning.” I stayed in bed with my head propped up on a pillow and I watched her silently going about her business. The world had stopped turning; the fury of machinery, trucking, commerce and struggle had ceased. Robin opened the curtains and the light poured in, but she was herself lit solely from within.saskia

She was more than just Robin at that time — she was transfigured in the light and seemed almost to glow. It was just a beam of sunlight that struck through the window, but the light seemed to come instead from some internal tungsten filament. She became all women. She was Ruth and Naomi, Eve and Rembrandt’s Saskia. She was not performing some minor task, but had hooked into the flow of the world and was living, glowing myth. Pure Archetype.

In a white blouse and black pleated trousers, she began fixing breakfast in a slow, methodical fashion and everything she did was the mimicking of thousands of years of daily living. She slowly cut off a piece of butter and placed it in the sizzling pan; she sliced the onion and cheese and with her arms holding the bowl on her hip close to her belly, she beat the eggs and prepared to dump them in the pan. The light was uncanny and I nearly cried for the beauty of that morning, the quiet intensity of her motions. All I know is that for 15 minutes Robin ceased being Robin and became everyone who ever prepared breakfast.

That moment couldn’t last, and neither could that relationship. Things beyond my ken were involved. They usually are.

P02969 001In the late 1960s I went camping at Cape Hatteras with my college buddy, Alexander. It was March, before the tourist season and the beach was empty and the wind was cold and brisk. One night we went out toward the cape point. The only light we had was our Coleman lantern and near the point the surf sounded from both sides. The air was thick with moisture and the lamp cast our shadows up into the sky where our heads touched the constellations. Our forms cast out on the cosmos and looked rather like the Colossus of Goya’s late “Black Paintings.” And I recalled the phrase from the Magnificat — “quia fecit mihi magna,” — and I felt magnified.

There are many instances of such epiphanies, although each will be personal to us, unshared in particulars, but common in outline. I have the climb up Mount Angeles in the Olympic Mountains of Washington to the lake with a pure John Martin waterfall on the opposite shore. There is the moment that slammed me in Port Jervis, at the joint of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, when I saw a vacant lot by the railroad roundhouse that was blasted with fall wildflowers — ironweed, asters, yarrow, goldenrod, queen-anne’s lace, joe pye weed, mullein, cow itch — it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen and even now I prefer weeds to domesticated gardens.

Buchenwald

Buchenwald

But I said such epiphanies can mislead us. For the religious or the sentimental, such moments speak of a beautiful cosmos. But these epiphanies can carry the opposite. When I was still a boy — probably five or six years old and it was just a few years after World War II — films from the liberated concentration camps were shown on television. I don’t know whether they were George Stevens’ films from Dachau or Army films from Buchenwald or Bergen-Belsen. But these films burned into even my childhood imagination, those spectres, those skeletons, those harrowed, sunken cheeks, those piles of skeletons wrapped in sacks of their own withered leathery skin. Soldiers picked up the stiffened bony puppets and tossed them into the backs of trucks. This too is ephiphany, the drawing back of the veil.

Aleppo, 2016

Aleppo, 2016

I see something of the same in the eyes of Syrian refugees, I see revenants of postwar Berlin in the bombed out walls of Aleppo. There is beauty in the world, but there is also horror. Ugliness to balance that transcendence, evil to mock the elation.

One thinks of all the genocides, mass murders, atrocities and pogroms of history, the cities razed to the ground with all their populace put to the sword, of all the gulags, all the dead Cathars, Tutsis and Hutus, all those drowned in the cataclysms of swollen rivers, ravaging earthquakes, the decimation of populations through plague, the millions lost to bizarre insect-born diseases. As soon as you find yourself Panglossing over the glory of a sunrise, you catch yourself short remembering Cain and Abel and the real meaning of the brotherhood of man.

One could make a list of those moments of disillusionment and disaffection. Such a list is a weight around the neck of any afflating joy. One recognizes the moment when you realize someone you have loved no longer loves back, when one is betrayed at work or by a friend, when you see the ravages of illness in those you care most deeply for. The world is not an easy place to love. Suffering is universal; even the rich lose their loved ones.

The truth is that we seldom live in the joy or the pain, but rather spend our days in utter banality. Banality is our salvation: If we lived in the joy we would go mad; if we lived in the pain, we would also go mad. So, we don’t see the dancing tree and we ignore the drowning refugees so that we can get on with our lives. It can hardly be otherwise. The world would come to a halt if we all lived in the beauty, if we all bore the suffering.

grunewald

pieta 1Yet, we cannot ignore our epiphanies, either. They sneak up on us, and for a brisk instant we glimpse eternity and its glorious, horrible uncaring. We recognize our place in this swirling inhuman chaos, both ecstatic and virulent. We ask our artists to memorialize both. They can take the two and bind them together, such as the exquisite beauty of Grunewald’s painting of the torture and gruesome death of a man on the rack of a crucifixion, or the sorrow of a mother grieving over the death of her son.

Certainly not all art addresses this special issue, but a surprising amount of our art, whether painting, sculpture, music or poetry, attempts to remind us of the forgotten intensity of existence, whether on the side of ecstasy or on the side of suffering. Even so simple as a watercolor of a vase of flowers hints at this.

If it is banality that saves us from madness, it is art that saves us from banality.

gauguin

Are the arts important?

It is the question at the bottom of the debate over public funding, and a lot of hooey has been written on the subject, from both sides of the issue.

Yet, the question remains. Is art important, or is it merely one of the frills of life? Is it more than the amusement of the rich people who can afford to buy it or attend its performances? Does it serve some essential function in our lives?

The answers usually provided are too often soft and squishy, with a lot of feel-good oohing-and-aahing alternating with benign platitudes.

All of which miss the point.

There are three major things that art provides that we can ill afford to do without. They have nothing to do with ”identity,” ”self-expression” or ”healing,” or any of the pop-oriented, new age or parochial apologies being given in the discussion.

No, what art does is as fundamental as language. Far from being an ornament, it is the foundation of culture.

Put another way, civilization doesn’t make art, art makes civilization.

How does it do this?

First, art asks, ”What is real?” It is the first line of investigation into what is true. Art is the acid test we give our assumptions about reality to find if they are gold or lead.

If science is the test we give to hard fact, art is the test we give to everything else.

Second, it gives us a way out of the isolation of our egos. The greatest art forces us to sympathize and empathize with others and enlarge ourselves and our moral compass in the process.

And third — and least familiar and most difficult to understand — it asks, ”What is the meaning and purpose of structure?” This last has unforseen ramifications.

They may be summed up in Paul Gauguin’s famous painting from Tahiti: Where Did We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Those three questions give us a clue about why art is important, why it isn’t merely window dressing.

When we ask, ”Where did we come from?” we are asking what is the ground of reality.

When we ask, ”What are we?” we are asking about those things that make us most human.

And when we ask ”Where are we going?” we are asking how art might show us the possibilities for making a life.

Let’s look at them one at a time.

ART AND REALITY

When art addresses reality, it does so on several levels.

On the simplest, it attempts to find out what the world looks like. That may seem unnecessary at first, but it isn’t as easy as it sounds.

We must learn to see, not only as individuals, but as a culture. And art is our most important teacher.

We could be taught to see other than as we do.

It is through art as a mediator and not through direct perception that you come to recognize the world. This is a fact we are almost always blind to. We see it no more than we see the retina on which the image is formed. durer

It was a heroic thing for those Renaissance artists who worked out the mathematics of perspective. They were grappling with reality; they were wrestling with an angel.

In some sense, every artist does that when he sets up a bowl of fruit and begins drawing, trying to stare that stubborn reality into submission.

But reality isn’t only about what we see. It is the question of what we feel and believe as a people. So theater and novels investigate the nature of justice or love or violence. In each case, the artist or playwright is creating a model of the world — a virtual reality — that we must come to accept or reject.

It is also important to recognize that every one of these artistic answers is provisional, and each is modified or rejected by succeeding generations. All reality is a working hypothesis.

To those who see art only as surface, the history of art is a history of changing styles. To those who look beneath the surface, style is irrelevant, nothing but distraction. The changes are not mere fashion but result from the constant testing of art against reality and back.

ART AND EGO

The second issue of art is just as important. Too many of us live our lives in the prison of our own egos.

We know what we have experienced but not what others have experienced. We trust our reality but no one else’s.

Art gives us a way out of this prison, by presenting us with other worlds, other realities, deeper emotions and more profound thoughts.

It is the reach of imagination that allows us to grow beyond ourselves and feel those emotions.

Art forces open those prison doors and sends us out into the light of day, where we must learn and feel what it is like to be Madame Bovary, Henry V or Shakuntala.

Art gives us a way of escaping the happenstance of history and birth for a chance at a more comprehensive, more universal understanding. We grow in worth as human beings.

For the great moral lessons, one turns to Aeschylus’ Persians, Sophocles’ Oedipus, Dostoevsky’s Aloysha or James Baldwin’s Beale Street.

It is doubtful whether, without the powerful emotions of pity and love, we would ever be able to create a civilization worth living in.

ART AND STRUCTURE

The third issue is more subtle and difficult.

We understand the things of this world not merely as an accumulation of unrelated facts, but as system. We see not leaves and sticks, but trees.

What we understand in that instance is structure — the ”big picture.” It is the glue that holds together our perception.

That structure doesn’t appear out of nowhere; it has its roots deep in the human psychology. It is the archetype of Jung, the mothers of Goethe, the poetic imagination of Blake. It is the central core of comprehensibility. We measure all things against it, whether we recognize it or not.

A good story isn’t just a collection of episodes, but episodes with a certain shape to them: a beginning, middle and end.

The structure of a story is every bit as important as its content.

Imagine two newspaper stories about the same train wreck. One is a cluttered assemblage of facts, in no particular order; the other is a well-told story with direction and emphasis. Each contains the identical facts, but the second can be read and remembered. The first is fact confetti. We cannot even read it; it makes no sense.

The only difference between them is the structure.

MYTHOLOGY OF CULTURE 

We can take the same structure and apply it so some other news event. The facts may change, but the import of the story remains the same. We see it over and over in newspapers: the child in peril, the senseless killing, the arbitrary natural disaster. Each is a structure of story that we fill in with the facts of the case. Each 40-car pileup is identical, except to those involved.

Each of these stories is a small myth in the larger mythology of our culture.

We think of myth as being a story that isn’t true, but the truth or falsity of a myth is irrelevant. All that matters is its persuasiveness.

The artist recognizes this fact and uses it in his art, working the changes on the myths and archetypes.

What makes this important is that we all use these myths — recognized or not — to give meaning to our lives. We live out our roles as father, mother, hero, victim, lover, loyal friend, all following the internalized archetype we have either learned or been born with.

Art, literature, theater, dance, music, provide models for us, so we may know how to make a life.

Like ritual, they show us the steps to the dance, and the steps are structure.

EMPATHETIC COMMUNICATION 

Take Michelangelo’s Pieta.

It is on one level an attempt to make a statue as lifelike as possible, with poses and emotions as true to their condition as possible. On that level, Michelangelo is exploring the reality of surfaces.

But we don’t look at the grieving Virgin and the dead Jesus as a test of what reality looks like or of what we would do in the same situation. pieta

We feel the emotions of the Virgin almost telepathically. It becomes possible to know what it is like to lose a child, lose a part of your own flesh. Even if we have lived the most sheltered and protected life, we cannot avoid coming to know at least a little about the experience of tragedy, and we are made bigger by it.

It is a work of profound human emotion, and you needn’t be a Christian to feel it.

But Mary is also the archetype of the mother, and Jesus is the archetype of all of us who know we will eventually die. We are given a role in the cosmic drama and the means of playing it with dignity.

The very greatest art, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Wagner’s Ring Cycle to the Mahabharata does this for us.

A DIGRESSION

Stories have a narrative content, but they have a structure, too, or they would fall apart.

Is it possible to write a story with the structure alone, with no facts to plug in?

That is in essence the direction of what we call Modern Art.

In the Renaissance, a painting was metaphorically a window through which we looked at the virtual reality presented. The paint resting on the canvas was intended to be rendered invisible, like glass.

But in Modern Art, we are meant to look not through the window, but at it. The paint, the brushes’ marks, the canvas, the colors up against each other: They are the very point of the art.

At its most heroic, Modern Art attempts to put us in contact directly with reality and with our emotions, unrelated to mere narrative event. That is the effect of Kandinsky or Pollock or Rothko.

But we have spent nearly a century investigating that level of reality and it has gotten a little moldy with use.

It is now the job of Postmodernism to write with its finger in that now-dusty window, ”Wash Me.” triptych

Yet, that layer of structure, unrelated to fact, remains in art, as it always has. Sometimes art uses it to give meaning to our lives without our knowing it, sometimes art points its arrow at the structure and says, notice it and enjoy it.

Without structure, there is no meaning, and art gives meaning to life.