Of Joy, Delight... And Art

Often when we think about the arts, we are thinking about the ways they help us. The arts - we say, and I believe - help children gain confidence and resiliency. The arts express the deepest feelings and fears we face as adults, every day. The arts enrich our spaces in good times, and repair our souls in bad times. The arts capture our insecurities, quicken our instincts, guide us through threats. They help us know ourselves. They help us know each other. They help us know better.

But, honestly, I think it is the way the arts do this that is so wonderful. They touch us and they teach us, but they do it through joy and delight - through beauty. I think that makes the difference between what the arts can achieve and what medicine, or debate, statistics or sociology, editorials or politics, textbooks or regulations can achieve. The need we have for information is great, and we get it from many admirable sources. The need we have for understanding and acceptance is much greater. The arts are uniquely able to help us meet the greater needs.

An elegant example, in my experience, are the stunningly simple drawings of plants by the artist and my friend, Ellsworth Kelly. His line drawings track the precise leaf and flower outlines of the common everyday plants that Ellsworth saw, and loved, and contemplated. The drawings are so beautiful. They really give joy and delight but, in doing so, the images also make truth tolerable. Deep inside the joy, the delight, that each drawing gives, lies the truth - the fact of fragility, of the freshness that will fade, the imminent death of each plant. We thrill to the line, even as we acknowledge the loss. Ellsworth makes the inevitable endurable by, quite simply, making it so beautiful.

I feel the same joy and the same delight when I look at the photographs of Carrie Mae Weems. In her "Roaming" series, for instance, a lone woman, darkly dressed, with her back to us, stands stolidly before one spectacular landscape after another. She shares nothing of herself, she lets each space mask her, as, in image after image, she stands still in solitude, disconnectedness, isolation. She is alone. Her stark and silent beauty, and the breathtaking beauty of the landscapes and surroundings, tell us all there is to know about aloneness, and about the need to accept it. The images give us joy and pure delight. They are so beautiful and complete, but they also invoke the lonely being that is in each of us. As one critic has written of her work, "It is Weems' conviction that radicalism and beauty are complimentary, not antithetical." It is with such "radical" majesty and delight that Weems portrays the awful aloneness every one of us knows, and helps us reach beyond it.

And I think of William Wegman and his delightful dogs. How well we get to know those dogs - clinging to their people, watching for them, waiting for the whistle or the leash, lost without the collar. For me, Wegman's work is, most lastingly, about solicitude and neediness, about the responsibilities of companionship, the demands of caring. Wegman creates with joyfulness, wit and beauty, inviting us to accept the duty that comes with love. No sermon can teach us compassion the way these joyful and endlessly demanding dogs do.

However dark, however demanding the realities of existence are, artists provide the lift, the light, the ways to make it through. They help us find the joys and delights, the hopes we need for our days and hours. I am grateful for their gifts.