Saturday night I had the honor of sharing some of my writing with an audience. I was invited to do this by one of my closest friends who is a painter and her cousin who is a singer, songwriter and very gifted musician. Like all things in life that once seemed an endless and totally out of reach struggle, the moment I was standing there reading my essay, it all made perfect, effortless sense. In reporting back to a friend this morning about how it went I said, “I felt alive.” She smiled with a deep understanding. Yep, I’m hooked.
The event was billed as MUSIC + ART, her paintings actually directly inspired by his music and lyrics, so I decided to spend some time this past week sort of ruminating about what music and art mean in my life. I did this on my runs, and also talked about it with a few select friends. I could not have picked a more immense, complex, or subjective topic on which to offer an opinion and share a few anecdotes. I thought a lot about the true artists, writers, actors, singers, dancers and musicians I know who are out there everyday creating and making a living at it only because they know they must. I only just recently allowed myself to start creating in public, but like I said, there is an ease now, and so I know it is right.
The thing I like about blog writing is that the medium fits my extremely lazy side; although I value citations and support, man I hate spending more time looking for the quote than actually just writing about my feelings and observations. I decided to frame the essay around the denotative meaning of art and share some of my stories about how it makes me feel.
I also remembered this great scene in “Dead Poet’s Society” when Todd Anderson finds his yawp. I totally found mine. Essay follows after the clip and when we have the video of me reading from the event, I’ll share that too. Enjoy! YAAAAWWWWWPPPP!!
When I think about something as vast both in concept and tangibility as art, sometimes it is just easier for me to start with the good ol’ dictionary. Or let’s be honest, good ol’ dictionary.com. I have been thinking about what art is, knowing that this topic is perhaps one of the most subjective and basically infinite of the human experience. Or at least the humans that I know.
“Art” has 16 entries in its primary definition on dictionary.com. From where my train of thought is headed, this one has the most direct route:
“the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.”
But for a little detour, I like this too:
“skilled workmanship, execution, or agency, as distinguished from nature. “
I like that nature got a mention, because there is no greater artist than the one we call Mother Nature. I had an Outward Bound instructor remind me that every single answer is there for us in nature, you just have to slow down and look for it. That always calms me right down. Try it sometime: concentrate on a leaf and you will solve many personal crises.
Earlier this summer I was in Washington DC with a group of high school and college kids lobbying on Capitol Hill. After a long slog through our day of meetings, we loaded up on donated Olive Garden pasta and headed out to see the monuments at night. We were very lucky to have with us the writer of the bill we were supporting, and who just so happens to be a history professor. He was our personal docent for each of the monuments we visited.
DC in July is beyond hot. It is muggy, sticky, drippy and uncomfortable, even at night. But the foul weather does not hinder the crowds who come to the capitol to see the monuments and memorials in the least. As we walked along Chris was giving us background and facts on how the Mall was designed, the politics behind each decision to build what monument where. We came upon the VietNam War Memorial, Maya Lin’s wall of names of each of the soldiers who died in the war. At night The Wall is barely illuminated, but lights from mobile phones and flashlights bounce around like electronic fireflies not to mention the quaint flicker of lighters and candles. People still look for the names of their loved ones in the darkness, often with a piece of paper and pencil to rub a relief of the name so that they may take it along with them. I lost my group for several minutes as I paused to look up the name of my friend’s father in the directory. I got the chills when I turned exactly to his page.
After a deep breath, and a literal “shake it off” I headed up to the Lincoln Memorial, which was teeming with people, echoes and flashbulbs. As I ascended the steps, after having just barely had enough time to process The Wall, I could feel the sting in my eyes. I saw my group, walked over to Chris, and choked out, “I’m just so emotional.” He looked me in the eye and said, “It’s an emotional place.” The sound kind of dropped out for me and I stood there taking in the impressive scale of the Lincoln statue, and then turned to see the words on the walls: his second inaugural speech, and the Gettysburg Address. At that point, I let the tears go.
Once more, we had to press on, this time to the Korean War Memorial. And that is when it hit me. What were we all doing here together, even if unknown to each other? What brought us all here to this night in July in terribly uncomfortable heat all at the same time, a scene which is repeated nearly every night of every year, year in and year out?
Art brought us all together. Monuments “of more than ordinary significance” built by artists to honor our loved ones, our soldiers, our civilians, our values, our ideals, our history, our pride, our pain, our humanity. What is the only thing that can heal the gaping wounds of slavery, war, genocide, and just plain bad human behavior? Art. Art is the only thing to heal us. Art did this that night in July and art does this every single day of every one of our lives.
I started to think about why art does this and I could only muster a very simplistic answer. I will leave it to the critics and professors and people way smarter and more patient than I am to expound more technically and philosophically on why, but here’s my take. Art and music and film and books and plays and any creative expression of human emotion whether a finger painting by a toddler or a joke rant by Chris Rock or a Shakespearean tragedy or even the real Mona Lisa behind all that bulletproof glass, connects us all to our shared humanity and to that mostly unexplainable tingling in our chest. What I might not be able to express in any articulate, linear, equation, some talented human being has done for me, and then I know I am A) not crazy with all these tears and spontaneous feelings of joy and B) very much alive.
I can barely get through one of Chopin’s polonaises which might happen to be on the radio, in my car, during my mundane errand run without blinking back tears, and if I happen to be at a live symphony or ballet, FORGET IT, the second those bows hit the strings I am covered in goosebumps and better have remembered to wear waterproof mascara. This also happens to me with certain Walt Whitman poems and I am pretty sure the first time I heard Duran Duran at age 12 on my lunchbox-sized Walkman with the synthesizers seemingly passing from my left ear to the right THROUGH MY SKULL, I was having what many apparently call a religious experience. The emotion that art evokes is not limited to weeping; it is also gut melting laughter and fist pumping rock and roll joy and magical inspiration and calm, reflective, confident understanding.
I would add a seventeenth entry to the definition of art:
Gracious, tireless, judgment-free host of opportunities for humans to be wiser, kinder, funnier, gentler goofier, and better at treating each other and the world around them.