Art and artistry. Thank the gods and goddesses for blessing us so. Can’t imagine life without it.
So many problems in this world of ours. Nothing but bad news. Gloom and doom. A global pandemic. Government everywhere in crisis. One American political party in the grip of a madman. The other in a maelstrom of identity politics. The browning of Mother Earth. Serious talk of a second civil war in the U.S. The chasm between the haves and have-nots ever widening. Wow! Where to turn when it all becomes unbearable?
Let’s talk about art. Why? Because it’s uplifting, the place where our spirit soars, where we sense our common humanity, and feel our differences shrink away to insignificance. Art is that experience which opens our eyes and lets us see in ways we’ve never seen before. It attunes our ears to an entire world of harmonic sound, our feelings to a palette of sensations, our taste to savory delights unimagined until that crystalline moment of clarity comes to us and we are made new by the encounter. It gives us a glimpse of what is possible.
I love talking about art, the world of ideas and inspiration, those places where we come face to face with what is rare and fine in our collective human endeavor. It’s not that it takes my mind off the world’s problems; rather, it reminds me to reach for the big picture and see that world of hurt in perspective. Mostly, it shows me what we’re capable of accomplishing and suggests there are solutions pending if we are willing to pursue them.
My first recollection of that sense of astonishment was going to a drive-in theater with my family when I was five to see “The Greatest Show On Earth.” Despite the title it was nowhere near, but for one’s first motion picture and first encounter with the circus, it was eye-opening. A modest dose of art that carried a wallop.
There was a series of performances for a number of years in Denver when I was young called the Rocky Mountain News Show Wagon that presented variety acts in city parks during the summer. At one, I fell in love with a comely young woman maybe twice my age. When I told my mother about her extraordinary beauty, she said, “Jimmy, it’s called makeup.” Art and illusion. I guess the message was to look closer before deciding.
At 14, my girl friend’s stepfather was a sophisticated businessman who loved the arts and took me to La Bohème at the Central City Opera House. What a mind-blowing experience! The ante was raised and my hunger for more was growing.
This was Colorado, remember, not New York, but there was art everywhere I was learning if you just kept your eyes open and paid attention. The Denver Art Museum had an extraordinary collection of Native American Art, one of the finest in the world. A lot to learn about the First Nations to occupy this land.
Many of the best musicians and singers came through town, too, performing at the Rossonian, El Chapultepec, and other clubs. The great Glenn Miller, a native son, played the Trocadero Ballroom at Elitch Gardens and the ballroom at Colorado University that bears his name. Even underage at the nightclubs, if you were cool and played your cards right, you could catch at least some of their act.
Film too was becoming a revelation to me. Most of the theaters showed the standard Hollywood fare, some of which was great, but a few of them brought the best foreign films to town, which introduced me to Fellini, Truffaut, Buñuel, and Kurosawa, among many others.
When I finally did get to New York, the city was a revelation. It had it all: good, bad, indifferent, but the good was very good indeed. Great actually. MOMA, Baryshnikov, Broadway, Streisand, Fosse, Dylan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters, Martha Graham, Miles Davis, Maria Callas, Alvin Ailey, Andy Warhol, the Blue Note, all the great writers, the incredible restaurants, more films at more theaters than one could ever catch, and in a little club in Cherry Hill, NJ one night, Frank Sinatra.
By the time I was twenty, I was hopelessly addicted to art and artistry. Once your senses have been opened, it’s hard to forget what you see. And hear. And feel. And taste. The great, it is said, is the enemy of the good. So it was for me. I felt so fortunate to have had those experiences because it gave me a sense of what was possible. It also made a reliable place to look for redemption when humankind’s fate sometimes seemed dire.
There are many efforts extant to define art. To me, it’s simply that which elevates the endeavor to a place we haven’t been before in a way that makes the experience iconic.
It’s in the visual arts, the performing arts, in sport, and in artful ways of living, too. Who could question the artistry of Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, Joe Montana, Billie Jean King, Pele, or Muhammed Ali? They elevated the game. They showed us all how it could be done. Once we’ve been there, there’s no going back.
Then, too, those unnamed people we encounter here and there who live their lives with dignity, courtesy, and a joyous encounter with each day, regardless of their status or circumstance. To me, they are living artfully and in that way lifting the rest of us by example.
I used to think the role of the artist was to reveal the truth. That was naive. Life is complicated, truth an enigma wrapped in a mystery. I’ve come to believe that the role of the artist is to deepen the mystery, and in doing so, to make it more compelling for us to engage with it and pay attention.
If art was easy, everybody would do it. It’s work. It takes effort. Dedication. Inspiration. A heightened consciousness. But some people get it done and make life more intriguing for the rest of us. I’ve always been grateful for so much art and artistry that I’ve encountered. It has given me something to aspire to in the way I go about my life. It has also brought me an enthusiasm for the opportunity. My thanks to artists everywhere.