Man the Arts

Among the unique and extroardinary abilities of humankind, surely his ability to create ranks first or nearly first. I have concluded that a Mozart or a Rembrandt inhabits every neighborhood, just waiting to be cultivated and directed in the direction of their gifts.

Think of how many people you know with beautiful voices that go unheard, with a natural capacity to see that never makes it to canvas, with a grace of movement that never sees the dance floor. 

When you consider how many people do make it to the big time on the wings of parental or pedagogical vanity, imagine what we would experience if our wings were grace and devotion to the God who is glorified when Freddy Mercury sings or Picasso paints or, yes, Christina Aguilera dances.

And there’s the trouble. Our creativity is an expression of the Image of God within us; it is among our highest joys because it is in our creativity that we are most like God in His creativity. It is what we are made for.

But the creative genius continously finds himself drawn to himself, since this talent is within him and mysterious. Rather than honor His creator, his temptation is to feature himself and to honor himself first.

As a result gifts are misdirected, their value diminished, and the staying power of their products disabled. One hundred years from now, it is not likely that many of the current superstars will be remembered – though some will, because they are so extraordinarily creative that the impulse to watch their performance is satisfying in itself.

I think, for example, of Karen Carpenter, whose music style rarely does much for me, but whose voice is unmatched in popular recorded music.

Last night I was re-visiting the Susan Boyle phenomenon on YouTube, where I discovered that they did a show about her life in Britain. I was not aware that Simon Cowell had produced a CD of her singing and that it sold 4.5 million disks in the first two weeks of distribution.

Susan Boyle has a marvelous voice and she is able to express deep emotion and beauty through it. People like to say she is no Ruthie Henshall, which is so utterly beside the point that it shows that they don’t understand what is happening when Susan Boyle sings. Amanda: “It was  a complete privilege listening to that.”

The same thing happened with Paul Potts. Listen to his version of Nessun Dorma. If you compare it to Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Mario Lanza, or even Aretha Franklin, you might complain that they are all better. Well, except for the last two. But it doesn’t matter.

Susan Boyle and Paul Potts are great singers who are now learning to sing even better. It may well be that Paul Potts is now equal to Domingo if not Pavarotti. I don’t know. I have great respect for the years of training that goes into the creation of any great artist. So I can see why some people might even be offended by the very (naive, I am sure) suggestion that it is possible that Potts has attained so great a stature. I wish we valued the arts enough to train more artists more thoroughly, but when the Image of God goes, the arts go.

But Paul Potts is in Germany right now, astounding people with his gift.

There is something magical about a sincere and modest soul being discovered in front of everybody’s eyes. It vindicates some deep hope we all hold onto, that the human spirit really does have something incomprehensibly great about it.

Have you seen Andrew Johnston?

When we enter into glory, we won’t be directing all our attention, as we do here, to making sure we have another meal tonight. In glory, we’ll be consumed by the arts: singing our hearts out in a music so pure Bach would be jealous, beautifying, decorating, revealing, unifying, harmonizing, communicating – all in ways that transcend the power of the words we use here to express them.

Here, the arts give us a foretaste of that glory and joy. But just a foretaste.

These considerations lead us to two challenges:

First, we need to cultivate our children’s artistic abilities, of any stripe, with eagerness and joy and devotion.

Second, we need to learn how to think wisely about all of the arts, knowing that they move our souls and direct our cultures and sustain our communities.

In short, man the artist needs to man the arts with wisdom and virtue.  Our well-being depends on it.

A Complete Privilege

David Foster Wallace, a great essayist and critic himself, once visited Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to try to get at why they were so effective. He pointed out that during the meetings people passed around bromides and platitudes to encourage each other and build each other up. But, he said with evident surprise, it worked.

Or, as he expressed it in his commencement address to the Kenyon 2005 graduating class,

The fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.

I’ve thought about this a lot lately, for many reasons. For one, I have three children in college now, so each of them is in the company of people who advance in their fields only by discovering something new, or stating something in a new way, and in outsmarting those around them. There is no room in a college paper for the “banal platitude.” As so many college students do, and as Caliban did in Shakespeare’s Tempest, they are probably “learning to curse,” or at least being taught to do so. More surely, they are being taught how to treat others with contempt, especially others who haven’t been to college.

I value the works of the intellect. I love to read Shakespeare as much as I love to do almost anything else. Let me climb one step in Dante’s Purgatorio, not to speak of flying one orbit in the Paradiso, and my mind can feed on the joy for a week.

But I hate when I find myself thinking I have attained something by reading Dante or Shakespeare. The only good of great literature that is sufficient in itself is when it increases the capacity of our souls to love. It has many other goods, but when we place any other of them above the that one only good, the others are corrupted and corrupting. Literary criticism and literature itself – indeed, all the arts, disintegrate when they are severed from love.

And that, my dear reader, is a banal platitude.

May God deliver me from ever doing anything original. May He simply give me eyes to weep when I see what should be wept over.

Like this, which I know you have already seen, but to which I can add nothing:

Well, I guess I can add this: