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Why Make Art?

alec vanderboom

Emily: “Good-by, world, Good-by, Grover's Corners,
. . . Mama and Papa . . .
Good-by to clocks ticking . . .
and Mama's sunflowers.
And food and coffee.
And new ironed dresses and hot baths . . .
and sleeping and waking up.
Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you.
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?-every, every minute?"

Stage Manager:"No, The saints and poets, maybe-they do some."

From Act III, "Our Town", by Thornton Wilder, American play write (p. 108)

This self-enforced Lenten Art+ Prayer series has encouraged a re-examination of what secular art means to me. As a non-Catholic, art existed outside of myself, a thrilling way for a novice girl to grasp “truth.” I gobbled down books, and plays, and movies, and pretty pictures as a means to discover myself. I felt myself becoming wiser with each new discovery. Finding a new favorite author or painter meant finding a new friend and becoming initiated into a world of ideas, witty repartee, and high sophistication. I collected favorite artists the way other women collected obscure shoes. Loving art, or wearing hip shoes, was a way to flaunt my uniqueness at future cocktail parties.

Now as a novice Catholic, I’m younger in mental years than I ever remember being. My world-view is fresh and tentative. Yet, I know an inexhaustible treasure of truth lies in the mysteries of the Catholic Church and it’s sacraments. Truth is something I try to immerse myself in each time I touch God.

Art is no longer a drug to be consumed, but something tentatively to create. My admiration of other people’s creations is no longer something to be graphed as “good” or “bad” but as something subjective that either “speaks directly to my heart” or “speaks to someone’s else heart and not mine.” Art cannot be the “Truth.” Art reflects the artist’s interaction with “Truth.” This more human, more humble, approach to art has left me profoundly grateful.

There is a strong tendency in the human condition to “fall asleep.” To take each moment in it’s entirety, in its monotone sameness, as “the end of the story.” Art, good art, for me is a wake-up call to the soul. It reminds us the life is fleeting. That circumstances change.

In Caravaggio’s Conversion, we see Saul in a humble, pitiful fall. Yet looking at this moment of confusion, I’m reminded what happens next. This tremendous moment is the start of a life infused with saintly grace. The beauty of Mary Cassatt, in her tender “Breakfast at Bed” almost causes me physical pain. I know that little ones stay little for such a brief time. I’m reminded of how often I’m the mother who worries about the toddler upsetting the coffee cup rather than taking a moment to squeeze the pudgy hips of a newly formed soul.

I’m still sorting out my screening process in art. I’m no longer yearning to attend the hippest art exhibits listed in the New Yorker. (I’m learning slowly that there are some images that are down right harmful to my spiritual development.) At the same time, I’m reassured that there is a reason I’m not as cloistered as my beloved Sister Wendy, who I just learned once snapped off “It’s A Wonderful Life” in mid-broadcast after a stressed Jimmy Stewart yelled his kids because “that is such a bad example.” I personally, needed to see the redemptive grace stated in that movie.

Art and prayer are tied together for me. I can pray after a Today Show expert on the chilling tale of African violence. Or I can watch a foreign film and feel as if my heart was loaned to another for two and half hours. Once I get it back it is forever changed. (Iraq to me is the blind boy who read the word “ALLAH” in Braille on the heads of grain, or the brother and sister who shared a single pair of shoes).

Thank you for your patience, as I spent yet another Lent reforming my thoughts on things I thought I already knew.