Rising Above the Muck and the Mud

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Many years ago I accompanied one of my students to New York City where she was slated to receive a national award for an art film that she had produced. Along with her art teacher I was able to see the sights of that grand town and enjoy the artistry that is so alive and abundant there. New York is a mecca for talented individuals hoping to display their passions for acting, painting, writing, sculpture, dance, music, fashion. There is a vibrancy and creativity that abounds even on the street corners where performers entertain crowds no doubt in the hopes of finding a pathway to fame and possibly fortune. 

I love the arts and truly believe that they rank with mathematics and science and philosophy as the ultimate evidence of human genius. Most of us can do a bit of arithmetic, pose some interesting questions about how things work and scribble designs on paper but the most talented among us excel far beyond the ordinary. There is something about their abilities that marks them as exceptional and this is particularly true with art. 

While I visited NYC I went to the Museum of Modern Art fondly known as MOMA. It houses some of the most stunning works of the modern era, many of which beg us to think outside of the parameters of everyday experience. Some view the most bizarre works, such as a white canvas with a single red stripe, as silly and easily reproduced by a child but further inspection reveals a mastery of paint and form and texture that few of us are capable of even understanding. Enduring works like Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup can are not only extraordinary in technique but also icons of an era. The complexities of modern art are much more daunting than a first glance reveals. It takes time and serious analysis to see and understand the nuances of such work. 

The film that my student produced was recognized by an international group of judges because its message was profound both visually and in content. In the space of only a few minutes she managed to pose questions about society without uttering a word that would indicate her intent. She demonstrated how we so often ignore the realities of life and instead lose ourselves in a world of our own fantasies. We look away from real problems that are right under our noses and see only what we want to see to justify our thinking. I understood why she won a prize but I wonder how many others would have seen her short movie as little more than silliness that made no point. 

Such it is whenever we view art. Some seem to think that it has to be rather linear, duplicating the world just as it seems to be rather than delving below the surface. They do not want to have to guess the meaning of any work of art but rather desire easy answers and duplications of their own desires. Real art is always challenging. The masterpieces of history are filled with messages about humankind that are not always obvious at first glance.

I can’t say that there is any kind of artistry that I do not enjoy viewing. Like anyone I have my favorites but I see nuances in shadows, colors, words, notes that elevate the masters from the copiers. Often it is a single moment of creative genius that demonstrates that we are in the presence of something that will be revered for all time. The expression on Denzel Washington’s face in the movie Glory as he is being whipped for disobeying orders conveys the pain of all the slaves who ever suffered under a yoke of oppression. His acting becomes a work of art. 

Great art takes us to places that boggle our minds. It delves into the human condition without apology. It is often misunderstood much like some of the work of Mozart was during his lifetime. We sometimes listen to hip hop and can’t get past the seemingly foul words instead of really hearing the message of what is being said. We can’t understand why Bob Dylan received the Nobel prize for literature unless we strip down his songs to the words and finally hear them as they were intended to be. 

I decorate my home mostly with items that mean something to me. My cousin laughs and jokes that everything I own seems to have a story and that is so true. I make attempts to coordinate colors and styles but mostly I just showcase the unusual and sentimental pieces that taken together explain my life. The stories only enhance the value of those items for me. They are not just things, they are part of a complex tapestry that I have woven together over many decades. They represent milestones, friendships, travels, achievements, memories. They are more than just decorations selected to represent a particular style. They are little hints about who I am and what I believe. Taken together they are almost like a biography, a puzzle that can be unraveled with a bit of imagination and thought. 

I appreciate art in all of its variety. The fact that we humans take the time to create seemingly useless forms of expression elevates us from the muck and the mud. There is something in us that compels us to paint on the wall of a cave, make music with a piece of wood, tell stories that are fantastical. It is baked into our DNA and some among us become giants in the world of art.