The copper bowl holds apples and pears. It sits on a ruched tablecloth, piled into rumpled folds where the bowl and fabric meet. Dark shadows fill part of the frame. Diffuse light suffuses the opposite corner, a heavy drape partially obscuring a window. The oil paints depict smooth textures on the surface of the fruit, rougher textures for fabric, wood of the supporting table, the deeply shadowed background of the room. Framed in carved wood, the painting has been hanging quietly on various public and private walls for more than 175 years.
A few thousand miles away, rubber bullets and tear gas canisters rain down across the boundary dividing Gaza from Israel. Protesters wrapped in kafiya and other makeshift coverings contend with noxious fumes, a hail of physical and emotional pain, injury, and all too familiar death. The particulars are different, but metaphorically similar in Ukraine, in Pakistan, in Yemen, and more. In Guatemala, El Salvador, and elsewhere south of the U.S. border, chaos reigns. Thousands of refugees are sent out into the blazing Sahara Desert at gun point, dismissed by disinterested Algerian officials. Nicaragua, once exhausted from its own 20th century experience with violence, is now sliding back into that grinding hole. Always full of potential from coast to coast, Nicaragua cannot escape its own worst tendencies. The past repeats, brought back to life even by some of the old names.
But where were we? It’s so easy to get lost amid the noise and suffering. We were looking at art.
A group of dancers in a brightly light rehearsal space define negative space by clustering themselves in one tightly confined corner. A single performer, standing alone on the opposite side of the room balances in arabesque, rotates in space, turning in isolation, defining choreographic counterpoint to the corps across the room. Now hours into the rehearsal, they’re all breathing heavily, sweat on faces, bodies, arms. The choreography isn’t about anything, per se—it’s movement designed to speak in its own language; there is no programmatic message. The dancers have spent decades of their lives developing the skills to bring it to life. The performance will open to audiences in a couple of weeks.
This all begs the question, of course: how can we stay here? How can we hang out in galleries with paintings, or stand off to the side in rehearsal spaces knowing just how many Rohingya don’t have a dry place to sleep? How can we even consider apparent trivialities like the careful positions of arms and torsos, set ablaze by theatrical lights, moving through space to orchestral music? We don’t even have to look outside our national borders. Our own political leaders, here in the United States, debate whether at-risk children in our own country deserve to have government subsidies for food. Debates grind on about whether we as a nation should build multi-billion dollar fortress walls to separate us from our national neighbor to the south. Highly educated government administrators direct groups of working class Americans to remove children from parents, sequester each in dehumanizing cages, declare it a national necessity. Officials tasked with protecting the environment turn blind eyes to tainted water supplies. They even choose to suppress the information from the public, perceiving some invisible yet measurable political edge from the scheme.
How, indeed, can we stay in our safe little aesthetic bubbles when the world is afire?
In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo.
Oh, those socialites. They chatter about the painter because looking at captive children is a sucky way to spend afternoon social time.
Except...those socialites are likely the proxies for people who fund the arts. Who cares if they really want to know the realities of painting, of dancing, of practicing an instrument hours every day. Who cares if they deems it worth their precious time to pony up and support? When chaos reigns, arts are the first balm.
What is the role of art in times of chaos? Napoleon Bonaparte famously said, “Music is what tell us that the human race is greater than we realize.” True enough. If it weren’t for creative works, tangible evidence against humanity’s lasting value would overwhelmingly condemn the species. Clearly the destructive French general had more on his mind then string quartets.
Humanity no longer faces the pressures of ordinary illness and food gathering that it did in centuries past. In place of nasty, brutish and short lives, modern humans face grinding, relentless pressures to pursue financial stability, endless explanations of their daily actions (we used to call this “paperwork”), and constant needs to prove adequate social status. We have fancier gizmos these days; we can travel faster, cure more illnesses, but we really haven’t changed our collective ethical view. What does a painting or a dance performance or a symphony or a volume of poetry mean when people are struggling simply to get poor kids vaccinated? (Assuming they’ve been educated enough to realize the value of vaccination isn’t a hoax in the first place.)
Is there any reason to care about art when people are starving, fighting, struggling by the millions? Is it even ethically reasonable to spend precious life on such intangibilities as art and music and literature? Smart people—lots of smart people, with extraordinary educations and years of grinding pursuit of advanced degrees, certifications, internships, and credentials—spend their hard earned adulthoods fighting about things that have nothing to do with art. They fight about political status. They fight to convince less accomplished people that they are worthy of their attention, their fealty, their praise. They fight to win seats in offices with plush chairs, rich carpets, and chauffeurs waiting outside.
What could art possibly mean to a global population that spends most of its days eking out meager livings on the rough streets of Bangalore, Dar es Salaam, or Medellin? What does art possibly mean to the people who spend their days pouring over spreadsheets working to score points with the House Appropriations Committee?
In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo.
In times of chaos—and there’s no way to pretend that these are anything other than chaotic times—the art world seems to be a luxury of the coddled elites or hopelessly naive. There is no oil painting or dance performance or hip-hop beat that means more than equitable peace in the Middle East.
It's the wrong question.
The kind of image described at the top of this essay is known as a still life. The term itself is poetic; as any thinking person knows there’s nothing still about real life. But that’s the whole point. The painter knows that to impose stillness on a scene—to create a simple depiction of a few ordinary objects suspended in time and space—is to offer a prayer for some sort of order that might one day emerge in the real world. Still life speaks with quiet resolve in opposition to the buzzy, busy, hurly-burly of the real world. It asks us to imagine something else, something different.
In times of chaos, the soul of artistic expression lives as a direct opposition to destructive forces. It is the alternative to the sounds of angry shouting. It is the antithesis of stealing food from your neighbor. It is a declaration that for some people, a few brief years on Earth is worthy of something more than determining winners and losers.