A few weeks ago, I attended my niece’s dance recital. I can’t say I expected much more than to sit and smile for my niece and the other 5 year olds in her group. I didn’t expect to be moved by the elegance, particularly of the older dancers, and awed by their precision and energy. I certainly didn’t expect to walk away with a refreshed soul.
I don’t know what it was that moved me so deeply. These weren’t professional dancers and I’m sure even they would agree that they weren’t the best in the world; not to mention that my knowledge of dance is so limited that I’m not sure I would understand the difference between great dance and merely very good.
I think it was simply its existence. The beauty of bodies in motion, the creativity to move limbs in time with music as a mode of creativity, communication and feeling. There was no message or deeper purpose. It was beauty for the sake of beauty. I sat in the dark and was moved by the passion of artists doing what they loved.
And as I sat there, a thought occurred to me: Could dance — and, by extension, all art — be a proof for God?
One of the things that moves me about dance is how superfluous it is. There’s not a verbal message being communicated. It’s possibly the most elemental form of art, just music and bodies. Dancers don’t (always) dance to make a statement. They dance because they enjoy being creative with their bodies, moving with music and seeing what they’re capable of. The audience doesn’t expect to have their minds changed or be preached to. They show up to watch creative bodies in motion.
Sometimes I read to learn something, but the most pleasurable reading I do is often for the simple joy of watching a skilled writer play with words. Few things move me more than sitting in an auditorium listening to men and women make beautiful music. I don’t often care what’s being said; it’s the joy of hearing evocative, transportive melodies created around me. I love a film that makes me think; what I love even more is watching an inventive and skilled creator work wonders with light, shadow and music. There’s not always a greater meaning — and, in fact, trying to attach a meaning often dilutes its power — it’s beautiful simply because it’s beautiful.
The best art is completely superfluous. We don’t need it, except that we do.
Art poses no inherent evolutionary advantage. Yes, we learned to draw and write in order to communicate. But great art, the kind that exists just to put something beautiful in the world, poses no advantage to getting fed, getting ahead or advancing our species. It actually pulls us out of our work and reminds us that there’s more to life than toil.
Art and creativity feel like gifts. Something higher than us is being magnificently wasteful with its creation. Rather than give us a gray universe, we’re provided bright colors, an unending symphony of sounds and a limitless library of smells, sights and textures. Added to that are creatures gifted with the same power to create works of beauty, passion and power. They can be dazzling, energetic films that divert us or orchestral works that provide refuge from life’s storms. They are often recreational in nature, things that remind us why life is worth living.
They’re completely superfluous. Except that they’re not.
Tuning the soul
Artists are compelled to create. Writers don’t feel complete until they’ve unleashed a torrent of words. Singers belt out tunes on stage, in church, in the shower or while doing dishes. Painters see something we dismiss as ordinary and rush for their easels, and dancers imagine routines as soon as music starts.
The same goes for consumers. Music lovers shell out hundreds of dollars to let an orchestra transport them, and cineastes drive for hours to find one theater playing a masterpiece. Artists and art lovers are chasing something, hoping to plug in to something greater than the small, drab world we inhabit.
The best art tunes our souls. It spotlights beauty and asks us to celebrate it. It finds something unanticipated in our mundane world and explores it, turns it over, magnifies it and replicates it. It’s communal in nature; it exists for an audience but it also inspires those in the crowd to become creators and draw others in.
My belief is that our souls are being tuned to this beauty by something greater than ourselves. When we produce art, we’re asked to identify with the image of God, the great creator. When we consume it, it’s a form of worship. Sermons can speak to our intellect, but art speaks to our souls. It directs our eyes to something bigger than our reality, a glory that pulses through everything. Like God, it doesn’t try to stay hidden; it constantly seeks out new converts and practitioners. It connects, heals and inspires.
So next time you’re at the cinema, the theater or a concert, play closer attention. There’s a display of cosmic proportions happening around you.