What is the Point of Art?

In the past two weeks, I have binged on art museums, saw a play on Broadway, bought a new car, and my favorite musician died. Two weeks before Christmas, my usually faithful Mazda 5’s engine blew up on the side of the highway. Like, literally blew up. (I have a story about it here.) Fortunately, I got stranded at a bar and spent the day drinking hot toddies and wondering how I was going to get home. Searching for a new car pretty much sapped my decision making reserves. If you know anything about MBTI, I’m an ENTP and making quick decisions isn’t exactly my greatest strength. Fortunately, imagining new possibilities is.

Andrea del Sarto, Study for the Head of Julius Caesar, ca. 1520

Two days after Christmas, my beau and I went up to New York City for a night. We first stopped at the Frick to catch the Del Sarto exhibition. Del Sarto’s red chalk drawings in particular, are truly astounding. (Left: Andrea del Sarto, Study for the Head of Julius Caesar, ca. 1520.) Many people had gathered at the museum to see them, but why? Why were we all there to gaze upon some 500 year old chalk drawings? What is it about art that drew us in? After our time at the Frick, we stood in line for an hour or so and got tickets to see “Allegiance,” the new musical with George Takei and Tony Award winner, Lea Salonga . I had never seen a show on Broadway before and it was very exciting. The play was beautiful and moving and very timely, even though the content was set in American history. It’s a story of a Japanese-American family interred at a camp during World War II and the decisions that they make under difficult circumstances. My family moved to Japan in 1986, the same year Labyrinth was released. I remember in third grade I learned that the world isn’t as beautiful and magical as I had thought. There were anti-American riots outside of the base gates. We were warned not to go off base until the mob dissipated. I asked my dad, “Why do they hate us so much?” He told me about the bomb the US dropped on two Japanese cities, instantly annihilating everything in it’s path and poisoning others for years to come. I can still feel the punch in the gut when I think about it. Then, later that year, in school we learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. I was horrified at America’s history and decided to make a film about it. I asked my dad to teach me to type and I wrote a screenplay. I gathered all of the neighborhood kids together and passed around the script. (Keep in mind, we were nine.) My dad was the cameraman. It was the 1980s, so video editing was just a pause button on the recorder. Our teen-aged neighbor played the trumpet so we could have live music during the performance. And ACTION! (See the movie!)

Many years later, my brother, who played both the judge and the assassin in the film, asked me, “What would possess a third grader to make a film about civil rights?”

But the bigger question here is what would possess any of us to make any manner of art?

I spend a great deal of my time in the studio making sculptures, drawing in charcoal, and at the desk writing stories that no one may ever see. It is so easy for me, and I’m sure for other artists, to feel despondent and ask, “Why am I even doing this? Maybe I should get a real job and do something useful with my time.” But what is usefulness? How else can we wrestle with the reality of being human?

Our second day in New York, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art. It’s such a large and overwhelming museum that we just spent time in my favorite spot: the hall of Greco-Roman sculpture. We also scooted through some Italian painting and the courtyard with great American sculpture. I know, my biases are showing. These astonishing marbles were carved before the birth of Jesus Christ and we are still marveling at them.

The following week, I met my Classics Nerd Posse from my time in Eta Sigma Phi at Hillsdale College at the National Gallery of Art for the Power and Pathos exhibition. (Did you know that I was a Classics major as an undergrad and president of our local Eta Sigma Phi chapter?) It took all my power to keep myself from completely freaking out. Those bronzes are incredible and powerful. And full of pathos, as the title suggests. Again, these are works of art from Ancient Greece, over two-thousand years removed from us and the images still resonate with our humanity.

Is it possible that making art is the main thing? What if it’s not a side job or a hobby at all, but it’s the whole point?

Then yesterday, on January 11, 2016 David Bowie died. I don’t usually cry over celebrity deaths, but I was a mess. Was he just a freak in a jumpsuit, or something more? I finally downloaded his new album that I had been waiting anxiously for. Even though it was 20* outside, I took a long walk with my earbuds in and listened to him say goodbye and float away into outer space. The music is so new and haunting and beautiful. He knew he was dying when he made it.I first saw him in 1986 in the movie Labyrinth, which quickly became my favorite movie of all time. I was a young, brown-haired girl named Sarah with a vivid imagination who lived in her own dreamworld most of the time. This movie had been made for me, had shaped my imagination about growing up and held me through that ugly transition from girl to teen. Bowie’s music followed me into my teens.

When you see yourself as an artsy weirdo, there is no one better than David Bowie to tell you that it’s not only going to be ok, but it’s going to be awesome.

How many of his songs have played while I have been working in the studio over the years? I remember the day I heard “Major Tom.” I couldn’t get enough. The past two years I played “The Next Day” over and over while I worked at Grove City ArtWorks and fought the depression of winter in Northwestern Pennsylvania. And now he’s gone, but he’s left something so much bigger than himself. Is that the point? The whole point of art?

So, then there was a bomb threat at my child’s school and at several other schools in our region. I live close enough to the school that I could see the children evacuating the building and loading onto buses to stay warm and offer a means of escape if the situation escalated, but I couldn’t go over there. I could only stay in my apartment and pray for the children and cry a little. Maybe a lot. This world is dangerous and full of darkness. It always has been, but now my heart is walking around on the outside of my body.

Is art our way of blotting out the darkness with beauty and light?

Remember how I said that I had gotten a new car? It arrived on Thursday while I was at the National Gallery of Art and then we went out of town. So, it had been sitting in the garage for four days and I had yet to drive it. I grabbed my phone and the doohickey gizmo that plugs it into the car stereo and headed up the highway into the mountains. I cranked up the “Best of Bowie” and remembered a great artist. Once the school gave the all-clear, they wanted the day to go on as normally as possible to offer the children a sense of security. My usually-anxious child seemed un-phased by the whole experience. In fact, she reported having fun hanging out with her friends on the bus while her mom was at home nearly throwing up.


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