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My friend John accompanied me on my trip to the Kansas City area recently to see a Pierce Pettis concert. It was the first time I had seen a Pierce Pettis show, and it was superb. A few years ago, I bought tickets to the Pettis show that would have been my first, but my wife and I showed up the night after the show–having crossed our wires–another embarrassing moment to add to my list. That red-face moment noted, the concert is a sidebar to the topic of this article. It was just the event that spurred an interesting conversation about art.
The show was in Lawrence, Kansas, just west of Kansas City, at a combination book store/art gallery. I love these places. The book store is downstairs and the art gallery is upstairs, which is also where the concert was held. We had dinner at a pub across the street and showed up two hours before the show, with plenty of time to browse the books.
Here’s my disclaimer: With the exception of art and music appreciation in college, I have no formal artistic training. I hesitate to admit that in this public forum because I don’t want to get booted out of The Rabbit Room. It’s nice and warm in here. But it’s true.
Of course, I know what I like and usually—though not always—have a pretty good idea of why I like it, but I certainly can’t articulate it with the pizzazz of a Francis Schaeffer or Madeleine L’Engle.
Pettis played one of the longest folk shows I’ve ever seen, clocking in at nearly 90 minutes in the set prior to intermission. Most shows would be over by then, but not a Pierce Pettis show. John and I used the intermission to check out some of the visual art in the gallery. The theme of the art showing had something to do with the achromatic color of maximum lightness, white.
I found some pieces that I liked, but much of the art wasn’t particularly inspiring. In all fairness, I suspect that it was a display in which students and the local Lawrence, Kansas population had the opportunity to show their work. That’s not to say that the art in Lawrence is awful. It’s only to note that when a gallery proprietor can choose the best from a broader region, it’s likely to offer a better overall aesthetic.
Nevertheless, simply looking germinated the seeds of conversation about art and beauty which continued for the 45 mile drive between Lawrence and our hotel in Kansas City, on the return trip.
My buddy was even less impressed by the art than I. As John questioned the value of art, he asked some penetrating questions. He could have been a blunt jerk. “Why is that old duct work with the peeling white paint considered art?” But he wasn’t. He’s not the kind of guy that was asking tough questions just to get my goat; he had a genuine intellectual curiosity of how and why certain pieces might be considered good art.
Though our conversation was stream of consciousness style and covered a lot of territory, two questions were embedded in my friend’s words:
1) What is the difference between great art and bad art?
2) Why is it worth spending time attempting to find meaning in art that may not be immediately apparent?
I didn’t spend significant time on the first question, because technically, it’s what I know least. But I do have a lot of experience in seeking out art, so I could speak in detail about my own motivation for persistently panning for great art in the nooks and crannies of the world: movie theaters, used CD bins, dusty old bookstores, college town art galleries, museums, and the great mountain ranges and prairies of the world.
To be overly simplistic, I seek great art because it makes me feel something. Pierce Pettis has a song called Hole in My Heart which features this line:
Well I’ve been kicking at the stones,
Just to feel the shock to my bones.
Feeling something is preferable to feeling nothing, even when the feeling may not be what some might call a positive emotion. It reminds me that I’m still running the race. I’m still a participant in this thing called life. Indeed, if a given work of art doesn’t include some conflict or tension, it’s like a positive and encouraging radio format, or a badly penned movie script.
Still, that doesn’t completely explain why I seek deeper meaning from art in which meaning may not be readily apparent. “Why waste time on art that initially appears to be ambiguous and unclear,” John seemed to be saying.
First, I suppose it’s the way God made me. My sister had three not always kind brothers and when we used to tease her about how and why she did something in a particular way, she used to say, “That’s the way God made me, boyses.” What a great answer. So if there’s something to be experienced or learned, I’m on it. I don’t want to settle for a cliché’ or any easy answer. It’s the way God made me.
Secondly, like a collector seeking a treasured item, there’s an unbridled joy I find in corralling a nugget of beauty or truth which resonates like a massive boulder dropped into a pond from 100 yards up. For me—and I don’t mean to suggest this is true for everyone—there seems to be some correlation between the intensity with which the art resonates and the level of difficulty in finding it.
Too, though the Bible tells me I am a new man in Christ, and I certainly believe that (lest Ron Block remind me), C.S. Lewis also writes that I am not home yet. This new man navigates the limbo between this world and the next in an earthen vessel. I retain my humanity in this fallen world and great art reminds me that the longing I feel for more is natural—literally.
Great artists are great communicators. And when a collector of beauty and truth learns of those artists who communicate most effectively, a trust begins to develop between art appreciator and artist. In hunting for morel mushrooms every year, I remember those patches of prairie, tree stumps, and fallen logs which dependably yield a high volume of mushrooms. Similarly, when I find an artist that consistently offers deeper meaning in his work—meaning that is thoughtfully considered and executed—I trust that my time invested will be well spent as I mine for truth and beauty in his new work.
Have you ever participated in such artful discussions? As I chatted with John, it occurred to me that most of the artists, writers, and readers in The Rabbit Room have probably had similar conversations. I’m especially interested in your thoughts and ideas relative to the second question:
“Why is it worth spending time attempting to find meaning in art that may not be immediately apparent?”
For you, maybe it’s not. It’s one topic of which even art appreciators have disagreement. So, let’s discuss. What are your thoughts?