THE ROLE OF BEAUTY
These next six articles on Why Art Counts in Your Life will address some of the basic reasons for art that I have pondered over the years. My view is that Art counts a lot in the enrichment of our lives, and without it we would have a much more empty and barren existence. With it we are uplifted, and in it are the seeds of creativity which touch upon our own potentials to add something meaningful to our time here on earth.
In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the poet John Keats describes a Grecian Urn that contains the life blood of its age, seen two thousand years hence. Though in its silence of plastic physical form, still speaking of a time gone by, it remains ever alive in its ability to present the truth of life at the conception of its making:
“When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Therefore, art is the carrier of truth throughout the ages. When we have a true object of art in front of us, we are in the midst of a communicator of an ancient insight long passed, yet still fresh in its transmission to us in our ever present NOW. We are enriched through the virtue of the Art. And this is BEAUTY.
The philosopher and spiritual sage, Krishnamurti, discussed the meaning of immortality. “What is immortal?” he was asked. What has defied death to the degree that immortality is a fact, and not just a wishful whim? “BEAUTY IS IMMORTAL,” he said. And this is also a feeling held deep within every human heart. When we see something beautiful, like the vista overlooking the Grand Canyon, or the overview of a slope of terraced green rice patties on a mountainside in Bali, or a masterpiece painted and hanging in the Louvre, what hits us in the core of our being? It is BEAUTY that flows into us like an ever giving spring, like a drink of cool water to quench the thirst of our yearning for the transcendent Heaven, here on earth.
One of the few completed masterpieces of Leonardo, housed in the National Museum, in Kraków, Poland, is this Lady with an Ermine. She touches something in us that is nearly impossible to take our eyes away from. She touches Beauty of a nature that is universal, and even archetypical. She is obviously dressed in a garb that is unusual for our times, and even with an animal one would hardly ever associate with a normal situation or setting of everyday life. Yet, there is something of timeless beauty in the light, in the shadows, in the delicacy of form, in the accuracy of anatomy and gesture, in the nobility of the face, in the clarity of the silhouette of the hand and wrist, in the juxtaposition of such a wild creature in the midst of a character of a gentile upper Florentine class.
The facial features of the Lady are gentle but precise and forward looking. She has a gaze that is drilling, penetrating, yet off to the side, so to speak, at something out of the picture. Even more compelling, the Lady invokes a vastness outside the mere rectangle of the painting, and hearkens to the context and culture from which she comes. And this is all still ALIVE NOW, in this very moment. It is a TRUTH that never dies, like the vision of a mountain, or an ocean, or an ancient oak that stands sentinel over the fields and horizons of our highest aspirations. When I observe her in her own element, I can say from my core, “She is beautiful.”
This Benin ivory mask from the Metropolitan Museum in New York is a miniature sculptural portrait in ivory of the powerful Queen Mother Idia of the 16th century Benin Empire, taking the form of an African traditional mask. The likeness was worn however, not as a mask, but as a pendant by her son Esigie, who owed his kingship as Oba of Benin to the Queen Mother’s military aid. (Wikipedia)
Though this sculptural portrait has an entirely different social context, there is something as equally captivating and powerful in its articulation and presence as the Lady with an Ermine. Certainly the craftsmanship is impeccable. Certainly the features of the face are truthful. Certainly the spirited row of human and elephant heads on the top of her head dress perplexes our sense of casual acceptance of the “normal.” What do they mean? Why are they there? What powers do they impart to this Queen? The mystery is ours to ponder, and the gaze of this Royal Woman gives us pause. Her presence is there in this moment, four hundred years later. Her beauty is in our face, here and NOW.
The role of beauty in our lives is inseparable from life itself. If “Beauty is truth, and truth is beauty,” as the poet says, then I would say Life is Truth, and therefore Life is Beauty as well. Beauty is intensely alive, resurrecting us all from the dead.
We strive to make known the immortal, and through beauty we come to know it. Beauty is “outside of time,” though it manifests within the forms and functions of space and time.
I have painted many a Jesus paintings. But this one, Jesus With Gentle Gaze, has something of a peacefulness in His gaze that the others may not possess. Perhaps I was having an exceptionally relaxed day. But someone else noticed it as well, in Denmark, and she purchased this painting from me outright. She was willing to pay 1500 Euros for this piece that emits a stillness. It actually moved her. When I see this gentleness, and paint it, then others can see it and experience it as well. There is a timeless quality to it. It even transcends my own “abilities” and touches on something given to me as an artist. It is a gift from GOD. Just like the Lady With an Ermine and the Queen Mother Idia are gifts from God.
In the event this painting sticks around, and it should, as the materials of modern paint are more inert than those of the old master painters, then Jesus With Gentle Gaze will shed His truth for many years to come, perhaps hundreds of years to come, and therefore give His beauty to life wherever He is, to whomever pays attention to Him. I like that possibility.
The role of Beauty in our life is to wake us up—To bring us more JOY—to refine our existence here on planet earth to be the royal inheritors of a spiritual truth—and the spreaders of a brotherhood and sisterhood of well being. The role of Beauty in our life is to make us better, more truthful individuals.