Tuesday, November 9, 2010

On art

We had the chance, last weekend, to see the Atlanta production of Ovo, one of the more recent Cirque du Soleil shows. I think we saw one of the first productions of the show in Atlanta, but you wouldn't know it from the performances and professionalism of the cast. I was so impressed with the incredible physical abilities of the cast that it actually, at first, almost made the show hard to watch. You worry about whether someone is going to fall, because what that person is doing looks so physically impossible that you just KNOW they are showing off for the crowd and they are going to fall.

And then they don't, and you move on to the next anxiety-ridden performance.

Only, there is something so beautiful about a Cirque performance that it was not long before I got over those anxieties and soon found myself so wrapped up in the show that I was not even really focusing on one performer. There is so much happening on stage--so much color, so much movement--that it can be hard to focus. But it was not long before I could feel my view broaden, quite literally, and I started to take in the entire show, from my seat in the fifth or sixth row.

And it was art. The show was art. It was not a collection of feats of strength, or a colorful group of people, or some kind of freak show. It was art, in the sense that art is that which bypasses your brain entirely and knocks on the door to your heart. This is not to say that art cannot be cerebral--it certainly can--but even cerebral art knocks on the door to your heart, only to climb the brain stem back into your head, like a trapeze artist climbing a rope ladder.

It was art. And I do not know if I actually felt as if I was above myself, but that is how I remember it, because that is what art does. It pulls me out of myself, which is good, because it can be stifling in here.

I joke, but what it definitely did make me think is that I need more art in my life. If I am going to try to move beyond drowning in a sea of details, then I need art to throw me a life raft. After all, we are speaking to that which is at the human core, and to that which is at the heart of God, and to that which is both at the human core and at the heart of God.

There are no finite words that can adequately describe either the human core or the heart of God, because at the very center of being there is that which is beyond words, what Schleiermacher described as "absolute dependence," an ineffable understanding that we are in unity with God and the world. Schleiermacher was talking about religious experience, which is as much art as it is anything else, if you ask me.

It can be hard to feel that absolute dependence when I'm filling out expense reports and coordinating volunteers and making phone calls. But these are merely brush strokes in the great canvas, the place where the core of human existence intersects with the heart of God.

* * *

There is a painting I love. It is called "Les raboteurs de parquet," or "The Floor Scrapers."

It was painted by Gustave Caillebotte, who is best known for a different painting, if he is known as a painter at all. Mostly, he was a collector and patron of the arts. The Floor Scrapers is not a particularly well-known painting, though it does hang in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

And yet, something about that painting speaks to my heart. I don't know what it is--it is certainly a strange painting to have speak to my heart, but it does. I will always remember coming up upon the painting at the Orsay, and how I felt just starting at it, the movement depicted, the ordinariness of it against the shine of the sun on the varnished floor. When we went to Paris for a week after we graduated from seminary, I made a beeline straight for this painting and just stared, allowed my heart to remember what it felt like to find it for the first time.

I have a poster of The Floor Scrapers that I look at from time to time, and--though it is not the same thing as seeing the original--the poster reminds me of what it feels like to stand in front of a canvas so large you have to wonder how it fit through the door, and to just stare, until the details fall away and the brushstrokes meld and I suddenly find myself standing at the edge of the infinite silence.

That's what art is, I think. And ministry, without art, is dead.

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