Saturday, December 29, 2007

Good Talk and the Goal of Art

One of my favorite Christmas traditions, after a short night of sleep, staying up into the wee hours with my wife's family in NY state, nestled in that warm house in the cold, quiet of Montgomery, are my late morning talks with my father-in-law.

It's St. Stephen's Day, December 26, and like clockwork, I go for coffee and donuts (vanilla iced with sprinkles for the womenfolk) and make it back just as he stirs (the ladies won't be up for another hour). Then the talk begins, slow and rambling at first, like a rain stream. Then a clear path is cut by a strong river of serious thought, as we sip our coffee and look out on Eager Road.

Our topics string together like a strand of lights, the classic bulbs, big, bright, and heavy-laden. Then we sit back and watch the glow before the Christmas tree, from the couches in the living room. Our thoughts launch out and hover in the air - on music, books, theology, faith, the world as it is... as it was.... as it should be.

This morning we strayed into talk of classic films, Orson Welles, and Gregory Peck, Paul Scofield and their work. "When a person gives themselves so completely to their passion, be it art, film, etc., what happens to their heart? Can you lose yourself in a negative sense? Where does the personality go when you have not given yourself to another person, but to a performance?"

I mentioned a thought of Michelangelo's I had once read years ago: "Painting and sculpture can never satisfy the soul attuned to the Divine." It could be said for any of the arts.

We wondered about so many actors and actresses, musicians, and artists, brilliant in their work, whose personal lives often seem to be fractured. There is a sadness that often surfaces in their interviews and in talk shows. Is it because they have given their hearts away to a thing - a craft, cause, creation - before they even knew what their hearts were made for? I think we can lose ourselves in our own creations and in doing so forget the Creator. But what's the line, the distinction that must be made? Can both be done?

I remember sitting on the edge of a decision once, back in the early 90's. I was wrapping up my associates degree in visual arts. A choice had to be made: give myself to this art completely, or turn in the road, to who knows where?

I felt it in the heart, this choice. It was like standing on the edge of a precipice, feeling the rush of adrenaline. Feeling almost it seemed, hands willing to grasp my heart, and others waiting to hold it. That was a key distinction.

I chose to withdraw from that fall into the life of an artist, at least the life I was seeing lived by the contemporaries around me. Something seemed off. In the immortal words of Han Solo, I had "a really bad feeling" about it, as though living as an artist (in the secular mold) would have to mean living for art's sake alone. As though I'd lose myself to this amorphous "spirit of art" and the self would be forsaken. I had studied the modern masters and seen it myself... in Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin.

"Painting and sculpture can never satisfy the soul attuned to the Divine."

We so often trace the image, sketch the shadows cast by the Hand of God, and become enamored with it. But we're made for more. I think the total gift of self is meant for a Person, not a pop culture, or a "philosophy." The path to God (and to our truest selves) is indeed a path of self-giving. The leap of Jesus was the greatest self-emptying the world has ever known, but He did it for us, for men and women, for each individual heart that beats in the human race.

In his giving, Michelangelo gave us so much. In the moving, living, work and sweat of artists, poets, actors, and writers, we get great glimmers of truth and beauty. But we must never stop there. We've got to keep reaching out, yearning for that Face the reflection of which even now seems so overwhelming to our senses.

"Too late have I loved you, O Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! Too late have I loved you! And behold, you were within, and I abroad, and there I searched for you; I was deformed, plunging amid those fair forms, which you had made. You were with me, but I was not with you. Things held me far from you - things which, if they were not in you, were not at all. You called, and shouted, and burst my deafness. You flashed and shone, and scattered my blindness. You breathed odors and I drew in breath - and I pant for you. I tasted, and I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for your peace."

- St. Augustine, Confessions

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