If we look carefully beneath the ashes of twentieth century burn-out in art, we can catch a glimmer of the still-glowing embers from past eras of beauty and harmony.
It is a small flame but one that may be ignited anew to light the way to a more advanced and exciting epoch than has ever existed before. Those faintly flaming embers are the art and ideas that have preserved the best of our Western heritage. The legacy of an unending search toward expressing the glories and possibilities of humankind has survived, and it is being revived here and there in sparks of beauty and life-affirming images that may forge their combined energy into a blazing torch to illuminate a path to a better future.
A fair amount of serious art being produced right now (though largely ignored by most critics and intellectuals, who always lag behind the times) actually confirms this.
Driven underground by academics, critics, and artists of modernist and post-modern art for decades and largely still untaught in learning institutions, the crafts of representationalism in painting and sculpture have continued to be taught by a handful of artist-teachers who refused to let their art forms perish. We owe these men and women — now in their seventies, eighties, and even nineties — a debt of gratitude for safeguarding the techniques passed down from Greece through the Italian Renaissance to nineteenth-century Europe and then on to America in the early twentieth. It is their students — now professional artists and teachers in their own right — who are presently of an age to lead the resurgence of interest in these art forms based in established Western art traditions. Novelists, poets, and composers, too, are consulting the past for techniques to help them contemporize the everlasting verities of life with bracing relevance to our own time and place in history.
So the crafts of the great arts of Western civilization are surfacing again. But what of ideas? Many artists, today, succeed in capturing reality, but how many create a heightened reality that not only brings into sharper focus selected aspects of life through compelling aesthetics but also communicates ideas? Without authentic relevance to the fundamentals of the contemporary human condition, art becomes either decorative or banal. Without ideas informing it, art becomes a pretty pastime.
Most artists are not philosophers; they are, rather, more sensitive souls who intuitively incorporate value premises into their work. Great artists, however, whose work reverberates with lasting significance are fully conscious of the underlying themes expressed through their work; they, in fact, use form and aesthetics for the express purpose of communicating — beautifully — the ideational content of their art. For these superlative artists, nothing is accidental; they select and include in their art only the requisite essentials necessary to communicate inner meaning. Such artists distill the quintessence of one image or one fleeting moment (or in literature and music, one finite time-experience) for their own sake first; they make it “stand still” so they can experience and return at will to the burning center of their creation for rousing renewal. Then they pass their vision on to us for further contemplation of the beauty and values inherent in the work.
In this regard, great art is a continual source of inspiration for us all. We can revisit it time and again always discovering something new and deeper as we, ourselves, develop. Then, as a result of our own evolving self-actualization, we may appreciate not only what the work offers on its own but also what it stimulates in us as our minds grasp insights that the artist merely may have glimpsed. We may formulate new connections of thought never intended by the artist but which, nonetheless, enrich our lives by result of our own creative process. Good art challenges the mind; it makes us think.
Art is not for enjoyment alone. Great art opens passageways not only to our inner selves but also to the outer world. It implicitly teaches us structure and coherence through its design at the same time it encourages us to “see” both nature and all living things, including ourselves, more acutely.
A landscape painting made of morning light arching into the colors of a rainbow that hovers over an apple-green orchard may guide our vision the next time we tarry in the countryside. A flower painting of scintillating colors and luscious textures can whet our senses to appreciate the fragility and translucent wonder of petals soft and fragrant, not to mention give us pause to consider the transience of all life, including our own. A depiction of a hero or heroine can encourage us to rise to our own best self. A cityscape can augment our respect for the soaring imagination and technological excellence of architects and engineers. A novel can transport us to different places and introduce us to different people, whom we are thrilled to know. A soaring passage of orchestral music can infuse us with courage to soar on to our own dreams. A nude male or female sculpture can cause us to marvel at the inherent splendor of the human body — the temple of our soul. Great art does far more than bring us pleasure; it can be a seductive tutor by emphasizing selected facets of reality for our scrutiny. Great art whispers, “Look. Listen. This is important.”
By our interaction with great art we hone our sensibilities to live out the details of our own existence ever more fully. Art, like a person, has a spiritual center where mind and matter are united to become one.
Let us all be sure to enrich our souls by making the fine arts an integral part of our lives.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation (www.art-21.org). She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "Adamas." Her latest book is "Adamas." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.
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