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Art is universal

Abby Jarvis

And The Cow Jumped..., 2007 “Art is universal,” wrote James Jackson Jarves. “It unites mankind in common brotherhood. . . . art is the connecting link in the chain of great minds. Through its language, thought appeals to thought, and sympathy echoes feeling.”

Jarves, a 19th century writer and art critic, beautifully captured the sentiments that ran through my mind while I was deep in the halls of the Chicago Art Institute. Of all the amazing works in that museum—works that span hundreds and thousands of years and come from every continent of the globe—I was struck most by a small, green, comparatively unimpressive plate in a hall of Chinese pottery. It was “Foliate Dish with Bovine Gazing at a Crescent Moon,” and my first reaction was to laugh. It’s a strange motif. A cow looking at the moon sounds absurd, like something out of a nursery rhyme.

My second reaction was absolute amazement. That plain, light-green dish seemed suddenly like the most amazing thing in the museum. Think of the implications of that plate! A man—a real man, who lived in real life, in a real house—looked at a farm animal in a field in China hundreds and hundreds of years ago. And he was so inspired by that cow that he went home and made a dish with its picture on it.

Think about it! It’s amazing! A real-life man saw a real-life cow, and that man put that cow on a dish, and now we can see it more than a thousand years later! That man had a name, and a home, and a family, and an appreciation for small, everyday sights like a cow in a field. He could never have fathomed that we would go see his plate in a museum on the other side of the world. He could never have known that a tourist from Lakeland, Florida would ever see his dish and feel a sudden kinship with him. The cow on the plate looks like any one of the cows that loll around the fields around my hometown, and it was captured in clay more than a millennium ago! What a wonderful thing!

Maybe I’m not making my point. Maybe, from your perspective, I sound like a crazy person raving about a weird dish and the fact that it has a cow on it. I don’t know. But I do know that, for a while, I felt a deep friendship with a long-dead Chinese potter whose plate was in a glass case a thousand years after he made it. I knew what Jarves meant when he wrote that “Distinctions of tongue or boundary lines disappear before the power of truths, which, like the rainbow, charm by the beauty of variegated hues, or, combined with light, illumine the universe.” I knew what he meant when he referenced a chain of minds connected by art—in my case, I experienced a chain of gazes. A cow gazed at the moon, a man gazed at the cow, a woman gazed at the man through a window in time opened by a small green plate.

Art is a remarkable thing . . . even when it takes the form of a rather unremarkable dish. The chain of minds Jarves references is accessible everywhere! You just have to look.

(Painting by Jamie Wyeth)