Wednesday, December 13, 2017
A few months ago New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece titled “When Beauty Strikes.” The column itself was a work of beauty as well as a thoughtful meditation on what it means to be fully human. A ballet school had opened across the street from Brooks’ Washington, DC apartment building and through the studio’s windows he could watch the graceful movements of the dancers. This “unexpected beauty,” Brooks commented, exposed the “limitations of the normal, banal streetscape;” moreover, it reminded him that there was a different “worldview which was more common in eras more romantic than our own.”
This worldview holds that beauty is an essential component of living and possibly the purpose of civilization. Through the centuries the timeless beauty found in the arts has delighted, refreshed and spiritually renewed us. “Art,” noted Picasso “washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” But the beauty that comes to us through the arts has an even greater power than lifting us out of routine or restoring our spirits: it can deepen our humanity and make us greater than our everyday selves. Brooks suggests that a person who has been moved by Michelangelo’s “Pieta” has a “greater capacity for empathy and a wider awareness of the repertoire of emotions.”
Rereading Brooks’ essay recently, I was reminded of a letter written by future president John Adams to his wife Abigail in the spring of 1780. As revolution consumed the colonies, Adams was in France serving as minister from his nation in the making. While in Paris Adams had seen magnificent architecture, beautiful public gardens, and masterpieces of painting and sculpture. In his letter he wanted to share with his wife the beauty he had experienced, but did not feel he had the time to do so. He was preoccupied with other matters. By studying war and politics, Adams told Abigail, he hoped to bring about a nation in which his sons would study commerce and agriculture. But that was to be only a transition to the final stage, when his children’s children would have the means and the time to study painting and poetry and music. For Adams, business and trade were not the final goal of life. The ultimate aim of civilization was the cultivation of the arts and the appreciation of beauty.
We enter the season now when the winds grow cold, the last leaves fall from the trees and the winter rains pour down. It is a season for turning indoors, a perfect season for savoring the arts, for a visit to a museum or a symphony or a choral concert.
At present we are living in mean and tawdry and vulgar times. In such times the restorative and transcendent powers of art are especially important, times in which we might be inclined to agree with George Bernard Shaw when he said, “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.” An evening in a theater or concert hall can be a curative for sickness in the soul.
Treat yourself to beauty this season. I just glanced through the December issue of Entertainment News NW where I found a wealth of offerings: music, dance, theater, art. And there’s another way to share the beauty. Year’s end is when many of us sit down to write checks to organizations we support. While it is very important to make donations to groups that feed the hungry and work toward peace, justice and equality, hopefully the arts will not be forgotten. There are so many local organizations that need and would appreciate support: the Whatcom Museum, the Whatcom Symphony, Allied Arts, the Bellingham Festival of Music, the Bellingham Chamber Chorale, the Kulshan Chorus, the Jansen Art Center, the Pickford Film Center, the Firehouse Performing Arts Center, the Sylvia Center for the Arts, the Pacific Northwest Opera, the Whatcom Jazz Music Arts Center—the list could fill pages.
When we give to the arts, we help to ensure a world in which the arts will always be there, delighting and nourishing the soul. John Martin, a noted cardiologist at University College London, once stated that the purpose of the arts is to assist people in becoming “true human beings.” The reason he was in the business of healing people physically, Martin said, was so that “patients can fulfill themselves by enjoying art, literature and music.”
Here’s wishing you a holiday season filled with beauty.