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Blog

Filtering by Tag: art

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)

What Is Art?

Jayne English

21 Jayne English

“What thoughtful man has not been perplexed by problems relating to art?” — Leo Tolstoy

A friend recently shared the above photo on Facebook when she visited the Tate Museum in London. The picture of Phyllida Barlow’s sculpture elicited strong opinions and lively conversation about what we consider art. Tolstoy tried to answer this question in “What Is Art?”his essay that stretched into the length of a book. Rather than how art relates to beauty, the feelings it evokes, or any of the other ways we might try to define art, maybe the best answer to the question is an indirect one: art is best appreciated when shared with others.

The responses to my friend’s post were varied. Most were “perplexed,”as Tolstoy said, about a pile of lumber being considered art. But one person considered it from a different perspective pointing out shapes, movement, shades of color, and the many lines inherent in the sculpture. This was the kind of input I was hoping for — someone who could help me see the pile in a different way. I think she tapped into the artist’s thoughts because Barlow stated that two of her inspirations were the river outside the museum and the “tomb-like”galleries. Indeed, in the river and huge open gallery spaces, there is movement, light and shadow, color and shapes. My friend said children were able to vote on the artwork in the museum. I’d love to know what they had to say about Barlow’s work. I’m pretty sure their view would sound something like the lines in Dean Young’s poem, “If I had to pick between shadows/and essences, I’d pick shadows./They’re better dancers.”

Looking at art with other people exposes us to a range of thought different from our own. I remember a book club discussion that completely changed my take on a scene that, with my own interpretation, made me disappointed in a book I otherwise liked. When our discussion leader compared the passage to a John Donne poem, the rich meaning and significance of the character’s actions became clear to me.

In his book Faith, Hope and Poetry, Malcolm Guite refers to the effect a particular speech in The Tempest has on its audience as “widening ripples”in their minds. It builds upon layers of meaning. Thinking through other people’s viewpoints expands our ideas about what art is and “widens ripples”in our understanding about the forms art takes. This leads us to appreciate aspects of art that we may not have considered on our own.

Art discussions bring us together. That doesn’t mean we'll agree on what art is, but it fulfills what Tolstoy called art’s essence “to mingle souls with another."

(Photo by Harriet Montgomery)

Artists Anonymous

Vic Sizemore

drawing-hands A friend recently told me of a ninety-three year old woman she met at an art show in Denver. The woman has painted her entire life and never had an exhibition. She is happy with what she has made and doesn’t care that she hasn’t had a show.

My wife and I recently watched Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, a quiet film about the relationship of art to life. Set mostly in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the movie gazes at and muses on paintings from the European masters. The musings are voice-over narration from a security guard at the museum named Johann—at one point, he stands off to the side while a guide lectures guests at length on Bruegel. Later, as we pan across paintings on the wall, he tells us that many of the paintings are the work of artists who went unrecognized and unrewarded while alive, while others were celebrated. “They hang here side by side,” he says. He then asks if we can tell the difference between them.

The ones who remained anonymous and yet labored on are the ones who fascinate me. I think of Joseph Grand, the hapless writer in Camus’The Plague. Grand works hard every day at combatting the disease, but when he goes home in the evening he works on his novel—actually, he obsessively rewrites the first sentence of his novel, trying to perfect it before he moves on to the next. He tells the protagonist Dr. Rieux that he dreams of a day when editors will read his perfect sentence, stand up shaking their heads in appreciation and say, “hats off, gentlemen.” Yet, knowing how unlikely this is, he labors on in obscurity trying to write the perfect sentence. Rieux calls him the story’s true hero because he has a little goodness and an ideal. His ideal is simply that the work itself is important and worth doing well whether or not anyone ever stands in admiration.

Many of my friends are writers, and artists, and musicians—often all three at once—but I have friends who do various other kinds of creative work. One friend designs and sews funky children’s clothes. Many teacher friends are constantly seeking creative ways to reach their students. A couple of chef friends of mine create delicious and fun dishes. Just like me, they want recognition for what they do well; recognition is not their goal however, not the people I have in mind. They labor on at their creative work for the joy of a thing done well.

If you knew you would never receive recognition for your creative work, would you still do it?

(Drawing by M. C. Escher)

The Eye Made Quiet: Symmetry, Uniqueness and "The Last Supper"

Drew Trotter

Untitled

While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things.

~ William Wordsworth

I love the symmetry I find in life, and I love its representations. The jangled, disordered musings of Jackson Pollock for all their beauty and interesting “patterns” have never been mine. Give me Leonardo da Vinci and “The Last Supper” every time.

And yet, and yet. My love for symmetry cries out for verification. In a world where uniqueness dominates, how can I so highly value the conformity of symmetry? Even God in His majestic creative power has built a diversity into the world that regularly surprises us, breaks our molds, our patterns. Am I opposing our King to hold balance and reflection in such high regard?

Of course the question is silly. God has built beautiful, orderly patterns into everything around us without violating the principle of the uniqueness of beauty. The sun comes up with such regularity we can time and explain the sunrise in staggering detail. And of course such regularities are, like Heraclitus noted long ago about the river, always the same and always changing. One gets both the diversity of unique beauty and the unity of regular science in every sunrise.

And so Leonardo’s masterpiece. Of course Jesus is dead center with six apostles to his left and six to his right. Despite what Dan Brown says, he points with the upturned left hand to the bread and with the downturned right to the cup. Even the apostles are grouped in threes, with Peter, Judas and John—the central characters perhaps in the apostles’ side of the drama, which is drawn from John 13:21ff.—forming the threesome to Jesus’ right. Of course the four panels to the left and right of the group, the three windows in the back, the paneled ceiling, the table with its pairs of legs intersecting the lines on the floor with perfect harmony, give the picture an atmosphere that is remarkably stable and symmetrical in every detail.

And yet, there is Peter’s knife—presumably the one with which he cuts off Malchus’s ear (John 18:10)—clearly in his hand, but being held at an awkward angle, an instrument of disorder. For its use, he will be rebuked by the Master. And there is Judas’s bag of money, clutched tightly in his right hand, while with his left he reaches for the bread of life, however tentatively. Woe to the world for stumbling blocks!

How these details, so small and insignificant in the painting as a whole, give color and life to it! But how meaningless they would be, if not in the context of the order Leonardo has given us, where things do not fall apart and the center does hold.

Is it art?

Lou Kaloger

13 john-baldessari-the-pencil-story-1972

There's an American artist; his name is John Baldessari. In 1973 he mounted two photographs of a pencil on a board. Beneath these photographs is his hand-lettered story of this pencil. So I look at this work and I wonder how it ever made its way into a gallery. It’s certainly no Mona Lisa; it’s definitely no Sistine Ceiling. Is it art? I’m not sure. I suppose if it is art it is because Baldessari causes us to reflect (at least for a moment) on the actual nature of art. Art expresses skill, and art expresses emotion, but art also reflects change. Clay is molded, wood is carved, stone is chiseled, words are arranged, a pencil is sharpened. Something rough is made into something more beautiful, or more useful, or more provocative, or all the above. Art speaks of transformation and sacrifice. Even the dull pencil had to give up something. Did it hurt? Probably.

So I think of our own lives. I wonder what it means when Paul writes, “For we are God’s masterpiece, created us anew in Christ Jesus so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (Eph 2:10). Though we are guarded and defensive our God remains willing to mess with us. He is even willing to use others to mess with us. Something rough is made into something more beautiful, or more useful, or more provocative, or all the above. At least that’s the plan. Will it hurt? Probably.

Make It New

Jayne English

21 not-identified-5

I recently watched Justin Timberlake on Saturday Night Live sing “Only When I Walk Away.” Multicolor laser lights flashed in geometric shapes and cast net-like patterns on the blackness of the stage. My 19-year-old son watched, too, and while he’s not a fan of Timberlake, he appreciated the fact that he was willing to try something new. The last time we saw Timberlake, he appeared on SNL singing “Suit & Tie.” It sounded like the Sinatra songs my dad sang around the house when we were growing up. What a contrast!

On one level, Timberlake’s diversity reminds me of the modernists’ creed to continually “make it new.” It also reminded me of Henri Matisse who, toward the end of his life, shifted from painting to making paper collages. Having survived surgery for cancer, he considered his last fourteen years “a second life” and he pursued his new medium with fervor. Matisse’s desire to try something new lead him to create what are often considered to be his greatest works. Matisse reinvented his craft. He made it new.

Jack Kerouac described how the jazz greats continued to develop their music. “They sought to find new phrases...They found it, they lost, they wrestled for it, they found it again, they laughed, they moaned.” But what makes all that effort, that pursuit of the new, meaningful? Is newness, along with beauty, an end in itself?

God told Moses that Aaron’s new garments should be made for beauty, but also for glory (Exodus 28:2). As image bearers we have the responsibility to pursue newness and beauty. But what of God’s glory? Do we pursue it? Is His glory worth the wrestling, the laughing and the moaning?

(Art is La Lierre en Fleurs by Matisse)