Art in Public

Two weeks ago, I visited the Frick Collection. It is a meditative museum. It is quiet there. I left feeling so calmed by the beauty I had engaged with and inspired by what visual art can offer to treat weariness, tiredness, and confusion. I wanted to capture all that I had seen and preserve it within me, so that I could carry the spirit of the art with me wherever I went.

Art is salve for the human soul. It calms, uplifts, and consoles us. It is precious and beautiful because it speaks to the heart. Art, like nature, has so much to teach us. Unfortunately, we are losing art – such an integral part of human and intellectual history—in our public spaces. Modern forms of entertainment have replaced regular touchstones of the humanities, music, drama, and visual art that, for so long, have helped human beings evolve emotionally and make sense of their experiences. Reality TV has replaced ongoing humanist education. Time spent online fills the gaps that were once spent listening to music, reading, or watching a film with complex characters.

Respect for art teaches human beings about the importance of creation. We do not all have to be artists in the traditional sense to learn from this principle. Do you use your energy to destroy, to dismantle, to harm and desert? Or do you use your energy to create, to heal, to give life? The latter is a compassionate and generous way to live in the world that reflects the beauty and composition of good art and the editorial practices of the artist.

If we could all choose to align our energy with creation, love and justice would naturally follow. Our culture would be more understanding, more generous, kinder, and wiser if more of us thought of ourselves as makers instead of critics.

The destructive impulse is most evident today in our government and in the news. Our leadership, at the moment, is failing, gripped by a desire to destroy the Good and dismantle that which protects and preserves: environmental legislation, healthcare, a functional democracy, education, equitable healthcare. Similarly, the media—with its endless barrage of BREAKING NEWS banners—does not maintain the editorial eye inherent to artistry. The 24-hour news cycle creates a spectacle of suffering and encourages viewers to be hyper vigilant. While watching local news, we can simultaneously become afraid of our government, North Korea, and going to the park after 8 pm. Oh, and WHAT? Whipped cream cans can randomly explode and kill people???? Our sources for information are rife with fear mongering, which tears at our social fabric. Not only do we become less generous as we go about our daily lives, we also begin to believe that our world is made up of entirely bad, selfish people and frightening realities. We believe violence is inevitable and necessary. We trust others less. We stop participating in community.

Unlike the news, reality television, or celebrity gossip, art, literature, philosophy, and religion embrace complexity and mystery. Analysis, or interacting with those sources, hinges on navigating ambiguity responsibly. We need sources for inspiration and information that encourage us to grow in our capacity to hold ambiguity. The more that we can live in a space that respects grayness and the space between information and judgment, the more we will collectively evolve toward wisdom and love, the more we will grow in our capacity to hold complicated emotion, the more we will learn to include and respect “otherness.”

Our culture is in the midst of existential panic, asking the question, over and over, “Who are we???” Different groups of people, largely divided by identity and positionality, have wildly different answers to that question. So we keep shouting our answers at the other side, and all the emotion that is rooted in pain, confusion, frustration, and fear comes to the surface in exclamations. If we do not come in regular contact with integrity and wisdom, we will fail to notice and protect the Good. In order to create a culture that is comfortable with ambiguity, we must see love, pain, joy, grief—the holiest parts of human life—and embrace them courageously.

In the same weekend I visited the Frick, I saw Hamilton, a work of modern art that demonstrates what art should do. It reveals truth. It speaks to the heart of the human condition. Its artistry is deeply beautiful and evocative. For the first ten minutes of the show, I had chills running through my scalp and along my spine and down my arms. I thought, This is so close to God. It was so true and moving it felt as though all of us witnessing its beauty were drawn closer to source, like we were cracked open to love. Art transforms. Through interacting with art, we become more courageous and less afraid.

Whether it be a Vermeer painting that captures the clarity of light during the golden hour or a show that creatively advocates for a more just society, expression that is of service to the Good moves the witness forward, practically, emotionally, or spiritually. Life is lonely, sad, confusing, and taxing; it is also joyful, magnificent, and breathtaking. We need consolation to support us; we need beauty to enliven us. The wisest—the artists at heart—learn to hold space for both sorrow and joy. Ideally, art helps us grow in our emotional intelligence and capacity. Creation is powerful when it inspires kindness towards oneself or others.

We need reminders of Truth, integrity, and beauty to inspire us to be compassionate in our daily lives. Different works of art speak to different people, and I am not in the business of labeling bad art, but art that is purposeful—that maintains its integrity either aesthetically or politically—is good by nature because it inspires creation and right action. It evokes emotion. It heals the parts of us that doubt or despair. Good art helps us become more loving, helps us cope a little better, helps us recognize that human beings can be quite amazing, and opens us up to the idea that humanity is fundamentally good.