The Problem with Art

autorretrato-como-san-sebastian-recIn honor of Holy Week, here’s a little presentation I wrote back in my acting days for an arts group discussing the Virtue of Humility.

Hope ya like it. But if you don’t, I’ll try to be okay with that.

Here’s the problem with too much art – it starts to hurt you. I don’t mean bad art that makes your guts clench up as you burn with embarrassment for the shmuck who made it. And I don’t mean that thinking big thoughts is bad for you – quite the contrary.

But something hurts.

Recently, I went to a museum exhibit – fascinating. Some things I laughed at and marveled that even the artist’s mother would save them. Others opened up worlds – some I did, others I didn’t want to enter. At the end of the day, my eyes and my mind and my feelings were stretched, tumbled, packed full and tired out. But it didn’t hurt that way.

This week, I saw two plays – excellent productions of excellent writing. At the rise, I wanted to be up on those beautiful, well-appointed, carefully-crafted, clean stages. When the actors entered, I wanted to be wearing those thoughtfully designed, properly fitted, expensively-made costumes. And all of that was exciting and fun.

Then the actors played the play, and all the while I was loving and laughing and suffering along with them, tiny little skewers were driving through my heart. I could ignore it during the show, I could marvel at their talent, their technique, their openness, freedom and simplicity. I could watch everything I’d been taught be lived, and rejoice at being able to see it.

But afterwards, oh, when it was over – trying to put my coat on and walk to the subway, with those skewers jostling everything I touched – agony.

I remembered the last show I’d done, and my gut clenched. I remembered the audition I’d had that morning, and I burned with embarrassment for the shmuck who’d done it.

I heard the Voice – that poisonous Voice in my head that says:

You’ve never done anything in your life that beautiful. You’ve studied and impoverished yourself for knowledge and technique that you can’t even apply. You haven’t even got the self-discipline to get up and work every day, how could you approach that level? While you’re obsessing over whether or not to binge on the baking chocolate, these people are WORKING! That’s why you’re fat and mediocre, and they’re beautiful and brilliant. You’ll never even come close – you haven’t got that kind of gift. You’ve been wasting your time.

And it’s really hard to argue with the Voice because its premises are all true, and its conclusions sound perfectly logical.

This is the pain of seeing beauty.

Then again, then again…

(Isn’t this what keeps us alive, this groping for grace?)

Have you ever been in a dance class or an exercise class, and the teacher shows you some stretch or lift (this especially happens with the simplest-looking ones) and you suck in your breath with pain – “Dear God! I’m never doing that again!”

Now, sometimes the teacher comes to you and says, “You’re just not used to it yet. Work up to it gradually until you adjust.” But if you want to progress, to master this activity, you have to keep doing the thing that hurts until it doesn’t hurt anymore.

Sometimes, though, the teacher comes to you and says, “Stop! Stop! That’s not supposed to hurt. You’re doing it all wrong.” And she corrects your form and your footing, and the move is transformed. You may still have to watch yourself closely for a while, until the right habit is solid, but the difference is drastic and liberating.

I don’t know if this is true, but this is what I’m hoping:

Maybe I’ve been looking at the beauty all wrong. I’ve been seeing the excellence, the artistry, in the wrong position and from the wrong angle. Surely if I could see it and simply rejoice that such beauty exists, if I could be fascinated by the work and eager to learn from it, without caring that it’s not mine, or that I have something still to learn, THAT would be drastic and liberating. It wouldn’t hurt anymore.

It would still be a stretch; it would still tumble me around and tire me out, but oh! To have no skewers to ignore or jostle or pluck out! Oh, to have no poison Voice to debate or surrender to!

Oh, Teacher, come. Change my form and make my footing sure. Watch me closely and stay with me till the right habit is solid. Change me.


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