Why Art?

Window panesI’m propped in bed reading my current bedtime novel. Pausing to reflect on a particularly engaging passage, my eyes raise from the novel—and rest on the shelves of poetry volumes on the opposite wall. Some of these books I open often; others have sat there untouched for years. Yet I need them all there. When I walk into my room I need to be surrounded by poetry.

On Saturday evenings, my husband and I choose a film to watch. Sometimes we choose a light film, sometimes a profound one. Whichever we choose, the evening enriches us. We chat afterwards about certain scenes, certain characters. We go onto IMDB to see what other viewers have said about the film.

Over the past several weekends, I’ve attended some of my favorite performances: my favorite string quartet, my favorite modern dance troupe, my favorite chamber music ensemble. When I was a child studying music and dance, I could have followed the harmonic changes in the quartet, could have named (and even performed) some of the dance moves. I’ve forgotten all that; yet I still crave these artistic events, still sit through them transfixed, still leave feeling enlightened, ennobled.


I cannot imagine my life without art. I cannot imagine our human lives without art.

Why? What is art? Why is it essential for our full humanity? Why are we especially scandalized when a crazed group like ISIS destroys ancient artistic treasures?

I recall an answer that Greg Wolfe offered in a Good Letters post a couple years ago:

Art’s method is precisely to search out a new form to help us see the content we already know as if for the first time. Art thrives on shocks of recognition. Some are truly shocking, with an immediate effect. Most are subtle, time-delayed fuses that detonate deep in our subconscious and move something that needs dislodging. In a sense, every encounter with a great work of art is a conversion experience.

“Art makes things new”: this is Greg’s theme. Without art, then, we’d plod through our daily lives without ever recognizing (re-cognizing) the depths drawing us along.

Art gives shape to our experience. Without it, our days would sludge along like a long, slow mudslide. But with art, the sluggish flow stops; we see a human figure carved in the mud, the clay. It’s a figure of pride…or of pain…or of reaching, longing, stretching toward the meaning without which our lives are clogged with sludge.

“The joy of art is watching how something takes on meaning,” said film critic Nick Olson at the 2015 Glen Workshop. In film, he added, “you watch the meaning become embodied.” I’d say the same for sculpture, for painting, for dance—even for fiction. And I’d add: in music, you hear how something takes on meaning.

And in poetry? Well, here’s a poem that enacts what Greg Wolfe said: that art finds a new form to show us afresh something familiar, to shock us into a recognition that’s also a conversion. Take this stanza from David Craig’s “The Apprentice Prophecies”:

It’s your steel porch rail in sunlight
beneath the mailboxes; bright, flat black,
the brick behind. You’ll be struck dumb
by the ordinary, and everything will start to matter:
what shirt you put on,
how to pronounce your name.

Art shapes the ordinary so that we’re “struck dumb” by it, so that everything starts to matter. Can I leave that string quartet concert and say something nasty on the way out? Like “Hey, you’re blocking the aisle; move along, move along.” This is inconceivable. The music has ennobled me, ennobled us. Everyone leaving the concert hall is smiling with gratitude. Or, as Craig continues in the poem: After you’ve been “struck dumb by the ordinary,”

You’ll start helping dogs across the street,
be careful not to cycle over worms
after rain.

And that novel I’m reading at bedtime? Right now it’s Austen’s Emma, which I’m reading for the fifth (tenth? twentieth?) time.

I know that Emma will prove herself worthy of Mr. Knightly by the end, but meanwhile she’s making every sort of blunder possible, showing herself meddlesome, self-righteous, overly self-assured. She misreads almost everyone of her acquaintance, with nearly devastating effects on them. In creating the character of Emma, in creating the novel Emma, Austen has shaped our ordinary human follies so that we see them anew.

Once Emma acknowledges to herself the mistakes she has made, once she’s repentant about them, she and Mr. Knightly can marry and—yes—live happily ever after. This is the shaping that art can give us. We know that, in reality, we won’t live happily ever after—not until eternal life. We know that we’ll blunder again. And again.

But the hope of living happily—if not “ever after” then afterwards for a while—is held out to us by Emma. Like the major chord we hear with relief at the end of one of Beethoven’s anguished late string quartets.


Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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Brooklyn: A Drama of Discernment

BrooklynOne of the hardest things in life is having two good choices that are completely exclusive of each other. It’s not a matter of picking a major in college, regretting it, and changing to another track; not a matter of taking a job at the wrong place and eventually finding your way to another one. Many choices—perhaps most choices—can be undone, however long and laborious the undoing.

But those decisions that are irreversible, unalterable, and unavoidable are the ones that cause the most anguish, especially when there’s much to recommend both of the alternatives (of course, at times we’re cursed with an array of good options, but for simplicity’s sake, we’ll keep it to two). In these dilemmas, we have an embarrassment of riches. The stakes are high: Pick one and lose the other forever.

Arguably, in this day and age, such dire consequences are less often the case than they used to be. What were historically lifelong commitments are now temporary engagements; wherever you are, you can get out pretty quickly. Affiliations, careers, and faiths are imminently interchangeable now.

Even marriage, which was once a permanent choice, has hardly the strength of a hair anymore, let alone a chain. You can divorce several times without stigma, though with somewhat more financial burden. And to our eternal shame, even children can be opted out of now, with the backing of a vast secular orthodoxy and the many huge industries that make a profit from it.

But that was not always so. There was a time when choosing meant you made a promise that honor and decency demanded you keep. In one of the loveliest movies to come along in a while, one of the loveliest characters to come along in an equally long while has to make such a choice—between two good things that she could never have predicted would present themselves. [Read more...]

Kolam: The Beauty of Uselessness

Kolam, IndiaThis one’s for Carin Ruff, and by way of answering my niece Kate’s question.

A little more than twenty years ago, I spent a summer traveling around India under the auspices of the Fulbright-Hays program, a summer fellowship grant program for teachers. Over the course of about six weeks, we traveled to some twelve cities, from the very feet of the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal.

India seems far nearer now than it was then; when our group visited, the country was in the final days of an old-style Socialist economy, and it was before the boom in the country’s tech sector—which had already started—had achieved a generalized reputation abroad.

It was before India became the home of the world’s customer service call centers, and before the ubiquity of the “mobile phone” revolution: I recall a hot afternoon in Chennai (which was then still called Madras) when I had to walk three blocks to a telephone office and pay in cash to wait for an operator to connect me to an international trunk line.

On that trip, I saw the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, and the erotic temples of Khajuraho—the whole UNESCO package. But what I remember more vividly, and fondly, are the little things: the reusable cups given out by the “air hostesses” on Indian Airlines and the dogs that waited in front of sidewalk shrines where shirtless Brahmin priests performed puja— acts of reverence to the divine—as though they, the dogs, were praying. [Read more...]

Creating Sacred Literature

Goya Crucifixion“We are just at the beginning,” Charles Taylor wrote in his lumpy but essential tome, A Secular Age, “of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can foresee.” If we are just at the beginning of a new age, it stands to reason that we are also at the ending of an old age.

The old age was, at least in the West, the mostly European Christian civilization that lasted more or less from Constantine to Darwin. That thing is dead. We live amongst its fragments and tatters, which is hardly news to anyone roaming this earth in the early decades of the twenty-first century.

One of the interesting things about living in a “between age” is that you have two essential choices on any given day. You can spend your time looking forward to what will come. Or, you can spend the day sifting around in the ruins of what was.

To my mind, some of the most interesting and provocative literature produced in the twentieth century was created in the mood of the latter choice. It is a literature you would not call religious. But you’d be hard pressed to call it completely secular, either.

Let me give you an example.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story in 1970. He gave it the title “The Gospel According to Mark.” The story takes place in the countryside of Argentina in the year 1928.

The central character in the story is a young man named Baltasar Espinosa. Borges wrote, “We may describe him, for now, as one of the common run of young men from Buenos Aires, with nothing more noteworthy about him than an almost unlimited kindness and a capacity for public speaking that had earned him several prizes at the English school in Ramos Mejía.”

The young man has something of a split consciousness, endemic to the age. His father instructs him in “freethinking.” His mother teaches him the Lord’s Prayer. [Read more...]

The Erotic Powers of the Holy Spirit

4kiss1My thirteen-year-old son had seen the Viagra commercials for years, but never understood what they meant, until finally, he asked what Viagra is and does, and I told him. Now he has this new vocabulary that includes the phrase “erectile dysfunction,” and another galaxy of humorous opportunities has opened to him.

He begins to explore the ever-present sexual subtext that exists just beyond child-consciousness. Dear Lord, the sex is everywhere. How many people are having it, this very minute? How many conversations, looks, and touches are about it, even when the word is never mentioned?

Fortunately, he still has much to learn and a lifetime to learn it—or not—which is also maybe an option. There’s a fair chance he won’t pick up on certain realms of sexual metaphor unless someone points them out to him. I don’t know if beyond a certain age, such would be a privation or a precious innocence.

For my own part, sex is the non-sensual monument at the center of nearly everything I do and think and feel and pray. It was the last frontier between childhood and adult life, the primary benchmark between innocence and sin, the portal to motherhood and the ongoing cyclical shadow over my bodily liberty.

Sexuality is still a bit of a bog I wade through regarding every new acquaintance or friendship. And sexual temptations are probably the chief source of any humility I possess, the primary impetus for throwing myself on the mercy of God.

And then there is the flesh and blood doing of it—which, what can I say? It makes the cut. But it does require boundaries, especially since we’re Catholic, and we already have six kids, and you can deduce the rest. [Read more...]