September 25, 2013

The Value of Art

My whole life I have been pegged as an "artistic" one.  I was viewed to be full of creativity, full of emotion, and quite capable of expressing myself--for better or worse.  Some even went so far as to blame my bouts of irrational behavior and/or thoughts on my artistic nature.  As young people, and even as adults, people use others' analyses, or judgments, or feedback as a gauge for who he/she is.  What others say about us and how others respond to us is a huge part of confirming our identities.  In fact, I dove deep into this theory upon researching how performance anxiety develops from a very young age for my undergraduate thesis, the mirror theory being a very real factor.  But I digress.  Perhaps more on this topic another time.  Between my own enjoyment of the arts and the feedback I received from the adults in whom I placed my trust helped me believe in myself as a free-spirited, expressive artist.  I launched into this "pursuit of the arts", for the arts better humanity.  They bring to light truths that logic cannot. Claims I had read countless times, yet I spent less than a breath of a moment trying to understand what those phrases actually meant.  My negligent interpretation of this pursuit amounted to simply developing my gift as a musician.

Oh my goodness, did I ever lack humility.  For three years I pursued the arts, striving to be the best musician I could, for reasons I didn't quite understand.  On the surface, I sought the praises of my audience and I held tightly to my responsibility as a performer to express what the composer desired to be expressed.  Beyond that, I never took the time to understand what it meant to be an artist. What my responsibility to the world would be as an artist.

By my senior recital, I finally started to see my lack of understanding.  For the first time I realized my true reasons for "pursuing the arts."  I wasn't pursing the arts at all--I was pursing perfection.  Three years of intensely practicing and studying and fretting over the perfection of my performances, the approval of the audience, all led to a sudden feeling of wasted time. What was I doing this for?  Why does any musician spend countless hours in the practice room continuously perfecting this phrase and that pitch? Humans can never achieve perfection and thus will never conquer this pursuit!  It's not a pursuit of the arts, it's a pursuit of perfection.  And quite frankly, in order to achieve that state of perfection I felt I had to sacrifice the things that mattered most to me: time with those I loved, time giving back to the community, time developing my faith.  All in order to achieve this pointless and impossible goal of perfection.  I concluded art was not enhancing the experience of humanity, it was simply a waste of time.

Still, this understanding of the "pursuit of the arts" and its value was greatly skewed.  Yes, I had finally looked outside of myself, but I was still missing the value of art.  After all, why would great minds write so highly of the arts if they were truly a waste of time?  Upon graduating with my bachelor's of music I considered what I would do with that part of myself.  Would I continue to play?  Would I continue to teach?  I had absolutely no desire to continue on the path of perfection--I didn't want to perform in such an environment and I didn't want to promote it.  That path was destructive to my soul. Time to move away from it.

So I did.  I occasionally picked up my flute to play--really, just to see if I still had it in me.  I surrounded myself with logical thinkers.  I read only non-fiction.  I found a way to logically approach my emotions.  I finally thought I had a sense of peace in my life.  A sense of order that allowed me to focus on the things that mattered most.  Yet the arts still called to me.  I found great joy in creating.  In designing.  In perusing the visual art museums.  In watching a well-scripted movie.  I recall watching Up with David about a year after I walked away from being a any sort of professional musician.  As Carl floated along in his house up in the air, the movie's main theme gently sounding through the vibrations of the violins.  The rich tones were joined by none other than a delicate piccolo and an oh so silvery greeting from a flute.  The score spoke to me so deeply, it moved me in a way I hadn't been moved in a very long time.

My soul woke.  And I started crying.  David, alarmed and probably quite confused, paused the movie and asked what happened.  I didn't really know.  All I could say was that I missed playing...but I couldn't understand why.  I had learned that performing music was a harsh, harsh world.  Why would I want to go back to that?

Nevertheless, the arts were seeming to have a positive affect on me.  They were making me feel things in such a raw and real way, in such a way that I could experience life on a more authentic level.  A few months after watching Up, we attended the Broadway tour of Next to Normal.  If my soul was sleepy before, it was no longer.  Next to Normal, for those unfamiliar with the show, is a story about a family struggling with a mother's bipolar disorder and depression which was initially triggered by the death of their infant son.  It's a story that hit home hard with David and I, long before Samuel was even a twinkle in our eye.  We both knew all too well the challenges, the stress that mental health complications can pose to a relationship.  The show was provocative.  It was raw.  It was real.  And it stirred emotions within David and I that we hadn't felt in a very long time.  It sparked conversation.  It encouraged connection between the two of us.  It reminded us of our personal strengths and weaknesses.  This piece of art spoke to our humanity.

Huh.  Didn't I just conclude two years prior that art was simply a waste of time?  Funny how it was ART that moved me to reconsider that conclusion.  And by funny, you know I mean ironic.  Since that encounter with the beauty of humanity--the raw emotion, the struggle, the will to overcome hardship, the courage, the joy--since all of those things, I (and David too) have found it of great importance to continue to expose myself to the arts.  We attend the theater as often as we can.  I spent hours in the art museums at the Smithsonian.  I still love non-fiction like a habitually sleepy person loves a cup of coffee, but I dabble in fiction as well.  Because that fiction takes me to a place of imagination that my heart wouldn't otherwise go.

Art, as I know it now, has a way of awakening the soul to live in the present, to live in reality.  It is important for one to expose him/herself to art so as to discover ourselves, to learn more of the creation that we are.  We are human.  We are individually unique, yet universally alike.  What makes us feel and how that thing makes us feel is perhaps alien from person to person.  But we all feel.  And we cannot know our deepest selves without coming to know our hearts, that is to say our emotions.

Most days, I don't feel strongly about the loss of my son.  I feel at peace.  It is true he is not with me, but I haven't lost him in spirit.  I know he is with our Father, our Creator.  But then...then I hear a song, or remember a song ("Without You," Rent), or remember a stupid musical (Next to Normal) that triggers such sadness, such loneliness, such despair and fear that the pain of my loss is ignited with such ferocity I am taken by surprise.  My tree is shaken.  And I remember how I've changed.  How this once innocent person is no longer innocent, how she's aged, how she's had to learn how to hold the joy in one hand and the grief in the other.  It is the deepest of human experiences, an experience that draws me closer to God.  

When art touches me in such a way, when it makes me feel in such a raw and real way, I come alive. I see more clearly the person who God has created me to be, and see His surrounding creation more clearly.  How could I have abandoned such a beautiful part of humanity so readily years ago?

The only regret I have from the loss of Samuel is this: that I never shared my artistic abilities, never played my flute while I was pregnant with him.  That he never heard his mama play.  Honestly, I'm tearing up as I write that. When I was pregnant, I felt so confident in my decision, confident in letting that part of me go.  I was at peace with not keeping up my musical abilities.  I thought there might eventually be a time when sure, I'd start it up again.  Perhaps my baby would ask me about the instrument, "Mama, what's that?" And we'd have a nice little learning moment.  Nothing more than that. Baby wouldn't know that mama was once a soloist for the local symphony.  Baby wouldn't know that mama used to play Holst, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and the like.  Now, long after it's too late, I realize that this part of me--a part of me to which I dedicated hours upon hours developing--is something I do want my kids to know.  I don't really yet know how I'll introduce that part of me to my kids.  But I do know this: the next time I'm pregnant, I'm going to be playing my flute as an expression of the human spirit, not for the performance.

I find a great sense of peace when I allow myself to experience art.  When I allow myself to walk right into that fiery wall of emotions the art might trigger.  Perhaps one of these days I'll share a list of pieces that have truly moved me; perhaps they'll move something within you too.  Have you had any particular experiences where you were deeply touched by a piece of art or performance?  Something that has changed you?  Let me know--I'd love to experience it too.

1 comment:

  1. I so love this post. I tried commenting on it a long, long time ago, but it got erased and I was too flustered to try again until now!

    Depression came between me and my love of art -- music, specifically. A lot of it just triggered feelings in me I didn't want to feel or was tired of feeling. And I don't think it's a coincidence that a great deal of my recreational "listening" is now NPR and podcasts -- things that aren't totally devoid of emotion, but very much appeal more to the left brain and much less visceral.

    As I've learned to manage my depression, music is much less painful for me to hear and I still love it so much, but the habit of just enjoying music while I do chores around the house or write is gone. (I'm listening to music now in this rare moment in an effort to recover!)

    Then I'll hear something that reminds me of the joy it used to bring out in me and I wonder, "Why don't I ever listen to that anymore?!"

    I need to get back to it. :)