“Life is a mistake that only art can correct.”
Stew, Passing Strange
I discovered this week that I have become a member of a religion I used to reject: the Church of Art. (I’m guessing you clocked this before I did.)
I discovered it during the swooning spiritual experience of watching the DVD of Passing Strange, the uniquely beautiful and rich musical story of the musician Stew’s coming of age, as an artist and a man, a journey that took him from a two-story home with all the mod cons in L.A., through cannabis coffeeshops in Amsterdam, post-punk clubs in Berlin, communes, collectives, love affairs that ended on the border of realness, and back again.
Repeatedly, Stew’s story draws a hard, straight line between the redemptive, clarifying, transcendent capabilities of art and spiritual ecstasy or enlightenment. I’ve drawn a few hundred of those lines myself in talks and essays over the years, I admit. But I have resisted tethering myself with them, because when I contemplated joining the Church of Art, my feelings about some of my prospective coreligionists made me think again.
You see, my nature and inclinations are deeply democratic (despite the disappointments of that faith). And so many of the stalwarts of the Church of Art are anything but egalitarian. At the extreme elitist end of the spectrum, worshippers eschew the mundane, living for sublime aestheticized moments involving the exhibition or performance of classic works requiring vast skill and capital to achieve in the form they crave: La bohème or La traviata, Giselle or Coppélia, the Eroica or The Magic Flute.
I heard my favorite story of high-church aestheticism when working as a consultant with a small theater company in Minneapolis. A feature story in the local paper had included the cost of authentic, handwoven tartans the Guthrie Theater had commissioned for a production of MacBeth. That single expenditure exceeded the annual budget of the excellent small theater.
My response to the grotesque excess of this type of red-carpet display—and after all, its utter irrelevance to the actual art being mounted—can be compared to liberation theologists’ repulsion at the Catholic Church’s willingness to invest in material splendor while countless faithful starve or endure severe hardship and oppression.
The gilded frames in which high art is so often presented serve not so much to enable its full expression as to call attention to its place of pride in the pecking-order. I wrote a few years ago about an experiment in which the superstar violinist Joshua Bell performed incognito in a Washington, DC, Metro station, failing to attract either attention or donations from passers-by. I imagine that even the most fervent devotees of the highest Church of Art close their eyes when a particular passage of music touches their hearts most deeply, blotting out the glare of chandeliers on red velvet and white marble so as not to intrude on the essence of the experience.
In London on Wednesday, an anonymous bidder spent over $100 million for Alberto Giacometti’s bronze “Walking Man I.” (Sotheby’s had expected it to sell for less than $30 million, still a remarkable sum.) This has nothing to do with the intrinsic merit of the piece itself, but with the glorification of its owner. However much an encounter with the work might touch or engage you or I or anyone else who passed time in its company wherever it were to be installed, that experience has little connection with the thrill of ownership at a headline-grabbing price. The transaction comments not on the power of Giacometti’s work, but on the economic power of its buyer, and on this ravenous beast, the high-art market, that—even as the global economy falters—grows in size and appetite, not even troubling to notice the ocean of suffering that could be alleviated by equivalent investment.
Having joined the Church of Art, I place myself among its liberation theologists, interested in the essence of its teachings, in the expansion of their practice, rather than the glory of its institutions.
To be sure, the DVD of Passing Strange represents significant investment: productions at the Public Theater and Berkeley Rep before Broadway, workshops at Sundance, and more. If the artists had been content with a one-off show in some small club, I never would have seen it at all. But Spike Lee’s production is a concert film, the record of a performance, modest as films go, and very right for its subject. I suppose that is one of the church’s tenets for me, a sense of purpose twinned with a sense of proportion.
Late in the play, Stew, as the narrator, recounts a conversation with a friend at a bar, a friend who sells pretzels for a living:
[H]e said, “The Real.” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “The real is not real, my friend. The real is a construct. The real is a creation. The real is artificial. The kid in your play is looking for something in life…that can only be found…in art.”
I keep working that blind spot in our social self-understanding, our inability to see the astounding extent to which our lives are infused, uplifted, and deepened by the experience of art, whether it comes to us via iPod or YouTube, the multiplex, the Met, or the work of our own bodies and spirits. I am hopeful we are going to awaken soon out of the trance that prevents us from seeing, understanding—and therefore pursuing—the public interest in artistic creativity, in beauty and meaning and all they bring. In the meantime, I do my bit to clear out the idols, and I worship.
The epigram that started this post introduces a remarkable moment in the play. Consumed with regret, the main character (“Youth”) creates an imaginary redemptive encounter with his mother, who has died as he lingered in Europe, refusing her entreaties to come home. His older self, the actual Stew as the narrator, sings that he will never see her again. Youth replies:
That’s it? You know, you’re right: you cannot bring her back. But why lose faith in the only thing that can? I will see her again…. Because life is a mistake…that only art can correct. I will see her again…Every night….