Verses of Change

 

We’ve lost our art.

Oh, we may argue about it.

But we look at the world around us. We look at the world inside us.

We know art’s gone.

And we’re not sad.

Part of what it means to be American is to devalue what’s lost.

Because what’s art anyway if it’s not with us?

Maybe it would matter more to us if we weren’t so well entertained. Maybe if we didn’t have such seriously good entertainment, we might miss art more.

But the truth is we have all the entertainment we want. American entertainment pursues us. American entertainment puts us at ease. American entertainment provides everything we need.

And so we’re content.

We’re more than content to live without art.

And why should we change, now that we’re mature enough to accept things the way they are?

The answer is that none of us can accept things the way they are.

We look at the world around us. We look at the world inside us. And there’s too much pain.

We’re slaves to what we can’t overcome. We’re estranged from our own heart. We want another chance but it won’t seem to start.

To change the pain we need to look beyond what entertains for the art we lost.

 

II. Keeping Change Out of Range

We could challenge the argument that we’ve lost our art.

But we know ourselves better now than at any other age.

And we know that the classical music stations on the radio and the quarterly poetry readings at the library and the new art galleries uptown are no more evidence that we’re art lovers than the existence of peace groups is evidence that we’re pacifists or the existence of human rights groups is evidence that we’re just, or the existence of churches is evidence that we love our neighbors as ourselves.

We know that we’re no more a well-educated nation because of the existence of schools than we’re a well-read nation because of the existence of books.

The facts back us up: when we look at our population as one body, we Americans do not read literature anymore.

The last time the National Endowment for the Arts counted, 38 percent of men read literature. The figure for women was 55 percent. Taken together, that means less than half of Americans now read literature.

It’s a dramatic and depressing decline of our print culture that means we’re less and less informed about civics, less and less engaged in service and less and less alive as a society. Former NEA Chairman Dana Gioia calls it an “imminent cultural crisis.”

But what do we care about culture? What we care about is ourselves.

And we don’t care to change.

We don’t care to change because we believe we don’t need to change. We don’t care to change because we’re afraid we can’t change. We don’t care to change because we think it will make us worse off.

So speaking change to us only hardens our soul.

Fine.

But we can’t complain about pain anymore, because change transforms pain, and we don’t want change.

And we can’t hurt others because we hurt anymore, because we could change if we choose, but we don’t choose to.

And we can’t bring down life around us anymore, because change could save us, but we don’t want to be saved.

We can only remain the same in an artless age.

We continue to starve for beauty. We continue to be beaten by lies. We continue this way thinking art can’t open our eyes.

 

III. The Cost of What’s Lost

We’re not stupid. We know what we’ve lost. We remember how it felt in our youth to get high on discovery. But now we have too much to lose, and change is for fools.

So let’s not fool ourselves: we no longer explore the core where learning and meaning are inspired by art. We’ve drifted to the rim where we displace our restlessness with entertainment. By settling for the superficial and by staying away from substance we are as far removed from art as change is from our heart.

That goes for those of us who’ve used the phrase ‘embrace the chaos’ to suggest that we’re moving towards the center instead of perishing on the perimeter. ‘Embrace the chaos’ is one of those pop proverbs that tricks the ear where the truth is supposed to ring. It sounds like counter-intuitive wisdom while it actually reinforces error.

‘Embrace the chaos’ suggests that change is more about quick reaction than it is about lasting reform. It burdens our concept of change with anxiousness about the outcome and fear about our fate.

Chaos is what change looks like when we don’t know who we are or where we are going.

When we’re not grounded with a sense of origin and a sense of destiny, the world seems to run on dumb luck. Purpose seems like an elitist conceit. Utilitarianism rules.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the change we need to recover from self-destructiveness and to reconcile estrangements and to regenerate love is not encouraged by our culture, because our culture doesn’t want us to think for ourselves any more than we want to think for ourselves.

Our culture works overtime to learn each of our archetypes. Our culture doesn’t like unpredictable patterns of non-commercial activity.

Nowhere is this truer than in entertainment, which is at its best when it’s spoon-feeding us.

Many of us have developed a high tolerance for being spoon-fed, because we associate it with maternal pampering that caters to our primal desires. Rarely do we bristle at the manipulation behind entertainment that exploits our need to escape our burdens.

Entertainment only gets away with doing for us what we can do for ourselves with our consent.

So it startles us that there little spoon-feeding in serious art. It unsettles us that we often don’t know what to think about art, because art doesn’t follow the entertainment formula. Many of us have developed a low tolerance for art that forces us to think too much, because we associate it with paternal abandonment. We find it cold to be told to work out what we see and to figure out what we believe.

This widens the divide between art and entertainment.

Unlike entertainment that tracks our movements and pops up on us everywhere we check in, art is something we must pursue. Unlike entertainment that pacifies us, we wrestle with art. Unlike entertainment that does everything for us, art will never do for us what we can do for ourselves.

And so we let art go.

We let art go even though it leaves a hole that nothing else can close. We let art go even though we know it carries our hope.

 

IV. The Art of Inner Life

Our hope is that we can fully believe in who we are. Our hope is that we can fully buy into our purpose. Our hope is that life will reveal its full meaning in order that we might withstand what we have to suffer and we might accept what we have to sacrifice in order to live happily ever after.

This is the source and the summit of our interior life. This is our inmost reality that has no exterior expression in secular life except in art.

And if art is lost to us, it’s because we’re lost to ourselves.

Art can’t change that.

Art gives us a stage to play out our interior life. Art allows us to identify our deepest experience in others. Art allows us to transform our suffering into solidarity and to convert our solitude into communion. But if we don’t bring knowledge of ourselves to art, all we have a dark stage with no actors. Important ideas about our existence must be in orbit for us to explore our core through art.

Art awakens mission by stimulating in us a sense of who we really are outside of profession and education and romantic love. It stirs in us a conviction about our claim on the world and the world’s claim on us. But if we don’t bring an inner awareness of ourselves to art we won’t recognize the call to mission.

Art will meet us in our efforts at recovery. Art will confirm us in our efforts to reconcile. Art will feed us in our efforts to start anew. But we must first do for ourselves what only we can do.

If we have stopped learning because we are through with education, if we have stopped serving because we are through with giving, then we have lost faith, because we are through with living.

And art won’t come to our rescue.

We’re past the age where youth can save us.

We change or we die being the same.

 

V. The Treasure of Slow Art

Everyone has a relationship to art because everyone has an interior life that needs to be engaged.

It’s up to us to overcome ourselves. It’s up to us to acquiesce to others. It’s up to us to begin a new.

But if we are to spark revival and start a revolution and reach our renaissance, we must have art, too.

It’s art’s job to reveal to us who we really are.

It does not matter for now that we Americans are not producing enduring art. There is enough fat in the masterpieces and the classics of the past to last our lifetime.

But it does matter how we come to art once we have made our new start.

We must remember to weigh art slowly. And we must remember to weigh art for treasure, not for pleasure.

When it comes to literature we need to teach ourselves how to read.

First, we need to teach ourselves to read slowly.

When we read slowly we inevitably will pick up lines that we would have no time to consider while reading at a speeding pace. Slow reading encourages lingering and the search for meaning. Speed-reading encourages line skipping in search of entertainment.

When we read fast for plot we pass over sentences that don’t contain action key words because we suspect those sentences have nothing to do with the advancement of the entertainment.

But the true movement of art is on the inside.

For example, in the middle of a complicated love square in the Cervantes novel “Don Quixote,” two beautiful women and two handsome men are confronting each other in a climactic scene. One of the women lays out all the ways she has been wronged by the circumstances of being forced to love the wrong man. And the man makes the following statement:

“You have conquered, for it is impossible for the heart to deny the united force of so many truths.”

The reader must stop and consider this for a moment. It is true that it is impossible for the human heart to deny the united force of many truths?

If it is, observe how applicable such insight is in our relationships, and in the management of our pride.

Consider all the times in life we are working against ourselves. Consider all the moments we are working against others. Would not this knowledge of our own heart help us concede battles and surpass obstacles by giving us a superior understanding of our own workings?

This is what art does for us when we come to it slowly. Art exploits the hidden life.

This is just one example from Cervantes’ masterpiece that some consider the greatest novel ever written. And while “Don Quixote” is certainly entertaining, Cervantes did not create the scene between four lovers to gratify our lustful leaning, but to enlighten our life of meaning.

This leads to the second point: We need to teach ourselves to read for treasure, not for pleasure.

Pleasure is perishable. Treasure endures. Treasure is what we want more than anything else. Even if we say what we want more than anything else is pleasure, we don’t mean it, because once we have pleasure we are not satisfied until we can have more.

We even become bored with pleasure.

But we are never bored with our hearts. And where our treasure is, so our hearts are.

If we read for treasure we will have art in our heart and we can find the happiness that eludes our pursuit.

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The Ethic of Artistic Service

Inspiration for Indigent Artists

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Genesis

My great-grandfather emigrated from Switzerland to New York. He moved his family to Chicago, where he drank on the streets to the scorn of the crowd.

My grandfather swore off the booze. He moved his family to Indiana, where he became a man of God.

My father swore off God. He moved his family to Chicago and became a man of might.

I swore off might. I swore off God. And I drank on the streets to the scorn of the crowd.

But then, by the grace of the God of my fathers, I swore off the booze. I moved to New York, and I became a man of letters.

And in those letters, which were already formed, was the place of my origin, the passion of my purpose and the promise of my destiny.

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