Who would have thought, a few years ago, that we would walk into a record store in the 70s and find albums of Handel’s Greatest Hits or Debussy played on a synthesizer, that two of Eric Carmen’s top singles—“All by Myself” and “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again”—would be borrowed from Rachmaninoff, that melodies by Strauss, Mozart, Bach, and others would have made the contemporary top-40 charts, and that Beethoven himself would have found his Fifth Symphony reigning as number one for several weeks?
Something is happening out there today in the world of the arts that seems to be too exciting to ignore. Whereas 15 or 20 years ago many of us might have purposely avoided the arts as something stuffy and suitable only for a certain snobbish level of society, today it would be unfashionable not to be more involved in the new and fascinating things that are taking place in the theaters, museums, and concert halls. Did you know, for example, that New York has just experienced its biggest theater season ever and that opera attendance in the U.S. has soared to a record-breaking 9.2 million? Did you also know that, in the last ten years, the number of professional symphony orchestras throughout the U.S. has doubled, that professional theater companies quadrupled, and that resident professional dance companies increased seven fold? Excellent movies have been made of such classics as Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, William Makepeace Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon, and Joseph Conrad’s The Duellists, while television has brought the novels of such literary figures as Balzac, Hardy, James, and Hawthorne, and the entire plays of Shakespeare, into the living rooms of millions of viewers. And very recently, two of the world’s great film directors have become excited about turning opera into cinema: Ingmar Bergman’s charming interpretation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute was a popular as well as critical success, and Joseph Losey is now in the process of making a sumptuous transformation of Don Giovanni. And from the world of ballet, names such as Nureyev and Baryshnikov are becoming as well known as those of movie idols, and posters and photographs of them fill the walls of many teenagers—along with an increasing amount of inexpensive yet quality prints of paintings by Van Gogh, Renoir, or Picasso.
What Can the Arts Do for Us?
The fact that something seems to be “in” doesn’t automatically make it good, however. In fact, often the very opposite is true. So what is it that makes the arts not only currently exciting but also ultimately beneficial to our growth and progression as human beings—and, even more importantly, as eternal spirit children of our Heavenly Father?
Plato was aware of what the arts could do to the inner man when, in talking of music, he said that “rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul” (Republic, III, 401d). Centuries later, Charles Darwin admitted that, in devoting his life to science while neglecting poetry, painting, and music, he had spiritually damaged himself: “The loss of these tastes,” he said, “is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character” (The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin [New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896], pp. 81–82).
The aim of all real art is high: to lift us, to expand us, to deepen us—to make us more fully conscious of what it means to live here upon this earth as part of the human race. And the wonderful thing about art (and remember this includes things such as poetry and music as well as sculpture and painting) is that it allows us to “experience” a multitude of things we could never, because of the obvious limitations of time and space, actually experience in a single lifetime. Furthermore, it allows us this endless variety of vicarious experiences without our having to suffer all the agonies of real life experience.
Brigham Young encouraged us to benefit from artistic experiences when he said: “It is your duty to study to know everything upon the face of the earth … . I intend to know the whole of it … . Shall I practise evil? No; neither have I told you to practise it, but to learn by the light of truth every principle there is in existence in the world.” (Journal of Discourses, 2:93–94.) We read, for example, in Moby Dick of Ahab’s mad obsession with revenge, and we can learn from that experience without going through the mental anguish and physical torture experienced by the old sea captain.
But that doesn’t mean that art is meant to be a substitute for life; on the contrary, art is meant to be an intensifier, an illuminator, and a clarifier of life. It attempts to cut through the routine muddle and the mundane ritual of our daily life to help us see patterns and directions. True art, then, is never an escape from life, but a stairway to it—a threshold, in fact, to a world of order and purpose and meaning.
Walt Whitman gives us an ironic illustration of this in his poem, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”:
(Walt Whitman: Complete Poetry and Selected Prose and Letters, ed. Emory Holloway [The Nonesuch Press: London, 1938], p. 250.)
The artist’s job is not merely to provide for us a series of cold facts and numbers and labels, but to recreate for us an experience in such a way that we feel we have been there and actually seen and touched and felt—and come away with some new understanding.
How Can the Arts Make Us See?
The poet Shelley said that “art penetrates the veil of familiarity of things” in order that we might finally see clearly and meaningfully. The novelist Conrad echoed this idea when he said, “The purpose of art is, above all, to make us see.” And even Don McLean’s popular song “Vincent” a few years back reminded us how the artist Van Gogh, too, “taught us how to see.”
What is this seeing that has so concerned the artist? We see with our eyes obviously (for example, “I see the pattern on this butterfly’s wings”), but we also can come to see with our minds (“I see now the pattern of longing for recognition or of escaping responsibility in my own life”). And it is this kind of intellectual and emotional insight, as well as the physical act of visual perception, that the artist wants to help us attain.
In other words, in “penetrating the veil of familiarity,” art brushes aside those everyday cobwebs cluttering our lives and clouding our vision, permitting us to stand in awe of a new truth, fresh and startling, or to marvel once again at the emergence of an old truth long forgotten. Many times, in fact, we have heard an abstract principle—such as “love your neighbor” or “have charity”—so often perhaps that it floats almost invisibly through our minds and our lives until one day we read a story like James Joyce’s “Clay” or Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill,” and the principle suddenly snaps into focus, and we actually see its value and significance for the first time. Likewise, we may pass a vacant lot with a run-down fence so often that we fail to even see it; we just know—or think we know—that it’s there as we move mindlessly by. But then one day a photographer closes in on that dilapidated fence for a close-up of the tones and textures that make up a few square inches of its fascinating surface, and the results almost make us gasp at all the subtle richness that we’ve been blindly missing in our routine daily trek.
The arts, then, can help us to see beyond the commonplace and to discover the beauty that exists in the seemingly dull and even the ugly. As William Carlos Williams says in his unique little poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,”
(Modern American and Modern British Poetry, ed. Louis Untermeyer [Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc.: Chicago, 1955], p. 131. From the collected earlier poems by William Carlos Williams, copyright 1938 by New Directions Publishing Corporation. Reprinted by permission.)
So much of what depends on those things? Not just life, but our appreciation of life. In other words, so much of our ability to appreciate each day of our life depends so heavily on our ability to notice and appreciate the commonplace things that make up those 24 seemingly unspectacular hours—things as ordinary as wheelbarrows, rain water, and chickens. If we could suddenly feel a little thrill at how glistening the wet, red wheelbarrow looks beside those white, white chickens instead of just assuming at a glance that there is nothing more to see than a rusted, old wheelbarrow stuck in the mud beside a handful of dingy hens, how exciting our everyday life could become!
Another artist, Robert Frost, uses a similar experience to make the same point in his poem “Dust of Snow”:
(The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Lathem [Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York, 1967], p. 221.)
On a day he already “rued” (cursed) and written off as a total loss, an incident happened that should, by all rights, have been the proverbial “last straw”: as the poet was going across his backyard, perhaps, he felt a crusty shower of snow sprinkle down his neck from a tree overhead, and he looked up, ready to shake his fist and let loose with a string of angry epithets, when he saw the startling beauty of the intensely black crow rippling its wings against the whiteness of the sky above, and he knew that, no matter what else went wrong that day, he had just shared a very precious and wonderful moment.
Is Art Only Concerned with the Beautiful?
Sometimes art not only awakens us to the beauty in the mundane but it also causes the ugly and the negative to affirm a very beautiful and positive belief. Occasionally I am questioned about a short story from my first book, The Rummage Sale, in which the father of a family suddenly goes berserk and violently takes out his wrath on the neighbor’s cat. “Why on earth would anyone ever want to write a story about that?” I am asked. “Why on earth would they not?” I immediately reply. I wrote about it because someone had to—because it said something extremely important that could not rightfully go unsaid. The story chronicles the frustrations of a man whose wife does so many good things for her church and her community that she is only home long enough to communicate with her family by way of little notes that she attaches to the fridge with a magnetic daisy. The story is not a pleasant one and not one that we are supposed to especially “like,” but it should not leave us unchanged. It should, in fact, impress upon us the truth that the family really is important—a concrete and powerful example, if you will, of President David O. McKay’s teaching that “no success can compensate for failure in the home.” It is not enough for the real artist to merely amuse or entertain; he must change lives as well.
Familiarity: Friend or Foe?
How then can we begin to step into that world of the arts and develop our awareness of the many wonderful things created by God and by his children? Ironically, familiarity is both the key that unlocks the door and the lock that keeps us out. When we say we don’t like something or when we announce that something is ugly or terrible, it is sometimes an unconscious admission that we don’t know enough about it to understand it. How many of us who find music and literature easy to like have grumbled and whined about “boring” mathematics? And by the same token, how many who are gifted in the world of numbers have assumed poetry dull and classical music no more than a bunch of noise? But how exciting those things can become when we put forth the effort to find out about them; anyone who says he does not like opera probably hasn’t become familiar enough with “Un bel di” from Madame Butterfly, “Visti la Buiubba” from I Pagliacci, or the “Habanera” from Carmen—all of which, incidentally, have been borrowed by popular songwriters at one time or another and have found their way to the top-40 charts.
The same can apply to our appreciation of the chanting of the Buddhist monks in Tibet, or the sculpture on a Romanesque cathedral, or a painting done in the garish colors and rough dark outlines of Georges Rouault. The monotonous organlike drone of the Tibetan monks can be dull indeed until we learn that they have studied and trained for years to attain a state of meditation and concentration that allows them to produce vocally more than one note at a single time—in fact, to sing three-part harmony with themselves! Likewise, the crude and awkward figures decorating the top of a Romanesque pillar may seem too amateurishly done to merit our attention until we realize that the hunched-over, distorted figures were deliberately made out of proportion in order to keep spiritual matters symbolic and not so realistic that they would appear worldly. And the rough, heavy lines outlining the simple figures in an intensely colored painting by Rouault become not only more meaningful but fascinating when we discover that he was first apprenticed as a stained-glass maker in France before he transferred his interests—and the cathedral-window style—to painting.
On the other hand, familiarity can also be a stumbling block—especially in the works of nature, as mentioned earlier. Because we have assumed since our crayon-picture days in grade school that tree trunks are brown and leaves are green, we have ceased to really look anymore. And what a shock to put our face close to a tree and really look at the multitude of colors (as well as shapes and textures) that exist there!
A Way to Begin
The key then is to be open to new experiences, new discoveries. Promise yourself that you will take at least one walk each day and really look, that you’ll take the time to stop and move in closely enough on a crumbling wall or a window sill with its peeling paint and dusty cobwebs to really notice the many subtle shades of colors and variety of contrasting textures that are there within a few square inches.
Secondly, make yourself available to artistic experiences and cultural events. Watch the paper for opportunities to attend the concert hall and the theater, to visit museums and libraries. But do a little homework, too. If you have a chance to see Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, find out the story first and perhaps some background information on the composer, his other works, and his style. The educational channels on TV offer limitless opportunities to see, free of charge, many magnificent productions in theater, music, and dance. And likewise, if you have an FM station near you that broadcasts classical music, how fortunate to be able to bring, at no expense, the concert hall into your room.
Last of all, remember to be open enough not only to attend the event but to appreciate it on its own terms. The story is told of the first exposure of one of the Shahs of Iran to western classical music. After he had heard the symphony orchestra perform, he announced that his favorite number was the very interesting one done just before the man came out and wagged the little stick. (This, of course, would have been the tuning up!) And his favorite part of the orchestra was the group of magicians who sat in the back and continually swallowed and then coughed up long metal rods. (The trombonists, no doubt!)
I’ve heard people exclaim after attending their first ballet, “Can you believe it? All they did was dance!” or complain after attending an opera that “nobody ever talked; all they did was sing!” Furthermore, don’t expect a symphony concert to be a rock concert any more than you would expect a ballet to resemble disco.
The arts can enrich our lives in ways we have not yet dreamed. Let’s not rob ourselves of the part that can be ours in the wonderful world of creativity awaiting us out there.