Picasso wrote that "Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life"...
Art transforms us. As Audre Lorde said of poetry:"It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give names to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives."
The same transformative potential inheres in all of the arts - painting, music, sculpture, architecture, dance, drama, literature. And it is this potential for change - both personal and cultural, indeed the potential for redirecting civilization - which is also a source of fear.
In repressive political regimes, such as the former Soviet Union, this fear is embodied explicitly in policy. Adrienne Rich writes, again of poetry, "that poetry is where the imagination's contraband physical and emotional imprintings are most concentrated, most portable - traceable on a scrap of paper, a bar of soap, able to be committed to memory as a novel or play cannot - as only a song or a joke is portable; that it's the imagination that must be taken hostage, or terrorized, or sterilized, in order for a totalizing unitary power to take control of people's lives."
In our technologically advanced, corporate-driven society, that fear is enforced in other ways. Again from Adrienne Rich: "You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it. That is not generally taught in school. At most, as if your livelihood depended on it: the next step, the next job, grant, scholarship, professional advancement, fame; no questions asked as to further meanings. And, let's face it, the lesson of the schools for a vast number of children - hence, of readers - is This is not for you."
To read as if your life depended on it would mean to let into your reading your beliefs, the swirl of your dreamlife, the physical sensations of your ordinary carnal life; and, simultaneously, to allow what you're reading to pierce the routines, safe and impermeable, in which ordinary carnal life is tracked, charted, channeled. Then, what of the right answers, the so-called multiple-choice examination sheet with the number 2 pencil to mark one choice and one choice only?
To write as if your life depended on it: to write across the chalkboard, putting up there in public words you have dredged, sieved up from dreams, from behind screen memories, out of silence - words you have dreaded and needed in order to know you exist. No, it's too much; you could be laughed out of school, set upon in the schoolyard, they would wait for you after school, they could expel you. The politics of the schoolyard, the power of the gang.
Or they could ignore you.
To read as if your life depended on it - but what writing can be believed? Isn't all language just manipulation? Maybe the poet has a hidden program - to recruit you to a cause, send you into the streets, to destabilize, through the sensual powers of language, your tested and tried priorities? Rather than succumb, you can learn to inspect the poem at arm's length, through a long and protective viewing tube, as an interesting object, an example of this style or that period. You can take refuge in the idea of "irony." Or you can demand that artists demonstrate loyalty to that or this moral or political or religious or sexual norm, on pain of having books burned, banned, on pain of censorship or prison, on pain of lost public funding.
Or, you can say: 'I don't understand poetry.'"
And - you can say: "I don't understand postmodernism." Or "I don't know anything about painting." or "Dance is so boring. You should go with your womenfriends." Or, you can say: "I don't have the time to read a poem." "I'm too busy to see a play; too tired to pick up my guitar." "I have no talent."
Of course, many of us, dwellers in this great city and its nearby suburbs, do regularly avail ourselves of Philadelphia's cultural riches. And yet, for most of us, I suspect there are frontiers we have not yet dared to cross. Frontiers of discovery - arts we're afraid of, haven't yet met; frontiers of encounter - allowing ourselves to be deeply affected by what we see or hear or read or touch; allowing art "to pierce the routines, safe and impermeable, in which ordinary carnal life is tracked, charted, channeled"; frontiers of intimacy - bringing art into our own daily life and spiritual practice.
As for the frontiers of discovery, I've learned that this requires discipline. For me, it requires lists and planning, just like achieving momentum in any other aspect of my life does. For some people, enviably, it is natural to read the newspaper, note the date of a concert, the run of a show at the Art Museum, order tickets, and go. Or routinely to stroll the streets of Old City on First Fridays. For others, like me, this process can become a spiritual discipline: expanding our horizons, trying something new.
The frontiers of encounter are, obviously, more personal. I am the type of person who will always refuse the headsets with taped commentary that accompany museum exhibits. Despite my ignorance, which is often great, I prefer to experience without mediation the gestalt of an exhibit, as if I were in a cathedral or an archeological site: the paintings or sculpture or assembled objects, whatever text is provided, the flow of bodies through the space, the conversation; to open myself to the experience and see what happens. Maybe I'll read about it first, maybe later, maybe not at all.
At The Barnes, with its extraordinary collection of Impressionist paintings, I was rewarded with a transformative experience. I felt as if the very molecules of my body had been reorganized by this tour of another visual and kinesthetic world. I felt a tingling in my extremities, a warmth and openness in my heart, a crazy sense of intellectual stimulation. I tell you, it was like drugs. Yet, when I returned home, I found myself negotiating everyone else's opinions, and unable to allow my own experience, my learning, to settle in a meaningful way. I need to return, and perhaps to write after I do.
The frontiers of intimacy - these are equally, if not more, personal. So much gets in the way of integrating art into our daily lives, our spiritual practice. "...let's face it, the lesson of the schools for a vast number of children...is This is not for you." Subtly or not, we absorb the message that art is created and even appreciated mostly by experts - or, poorly, by children.
Television, of course, has eroded domestic life in so many ways; and our amnesia about the value and importance of reading to one another, of singing together is one of them.
Marcel Proust wrote: "Only through art can we emerge from ourselves and know what another person knows."
Art...is a way of stepping outside ourselves and into a larger experience...it's the imagination that must be taken hostage, or terrorized, or sterilized, in order for a totalizing unitary power to take control of people's lives." Whether that of a repressive political regime, an anaesthetized mall culture, or one of our own making.
I think of the Afghans liberated from the barbarism of the Taliban - and how music - something we so take for granted - was suddenly restored to daily life! We are not accustomed to considering the revolutionary qualities of art - or how painful its absence; since our public debate is usually limited to squabbling over decency standards...
In this season of anticipation, as we prepare our hearts and our hearths for a rebirth of wonder, may we walk in that quality of light. In this season of peace, as we reach out to others - family and friends and those less fortunate - may art wash away from our souls the dust of everyday life. In this season of arrival, may we surrender to beauty as if our lives depended on it.
This excerpt is from a sermon, "What is Found There," originally preached by The Reverend Dr. Holly Horn at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia in December of 2001.
Artolatry bread image after Salvadore Dalí's Basket of Bread (1926).