art also saves lives

Pekka Kuusisto, Meidan Festivaali 2014

Pekka Kuusisto, Meidan Festivaali 2014

Since first encountering Pekka Kuusisto in February, Meidän Festivaali ("Our Festival"), of which Kuusisto is the Artistic Director, has been on my calendar.  It was a pipe dream -- no small expense to travel to and stay in Finland for ten days -- but still I hoped I might make it there.  In my mind the excursion had reached the level of pilgrimage.  But now that the festival has begun, I am still here in the States, and life goes on nevertheless with or without musical adventures abroad.

Unable to sit on Lake Tuusula at night listening to stories and improvisations, I've spent the morning sating myself with stories of Pekka Kuusisto: any English-language (or poorly Google-translated) interviews I can find.  I particularly love this one, which describes Kuusisto as "an explorer whose world music map knows no borders."

"Exploration" is a delightful way to describe artistic pursuits: it reveals the truth that perhaps there is nothing to be known or understood from a given artwork; only contemplated, worked through, wrestled with, plunged into.  There's a proverb I've been turning over for the last few weeks: "Listen with the intent of hearing, not responding."  What if we try to experience art not with the intent of making it our own, of deriving some self-serving "meaning" from it, but of simply exploring its depths?  For the creators who balk at making simply another piece in a long line of pieces, remember Alice Fulton's wisdom: "It will be new // whether you make it new / or not."  Explore, and something -- some of you as well -- will come from it.

For the last many weeks, when my mind and time have been full of distractions, I have felt more than ever the pointed desire (indeed, need!) simply to create.  I am tired of the rest; all I want is to sit in my quiet home, think thoughts like these, and make art from them.

Another phrase I've been turning over for some time: "I am less interested in beauty so much as the spontaneous expression of the self."  A line grabbed from last year's journal, relevant to me now as I reflect on how I spent much of yesterday: at a children's art event.  We drew and painted together, and drew and painted on one another's arms and faces, and from the example of children who with no qualms decorated their faces like peacock feathers and circus characters, I understood that self-expression, regardless of the form it takes, is to be treasured.  And protected.

There is in fact some transcendence in art-making.  There is a quality, an instance, when creation goes beyond the expression of a self and becomes its own tangible reality: how sound becomes music, for instance, and how that entity -- the music -- takes on a life of its own, comments on other creations, makes its place in the canon.  Experiencing dance, there is an instance when one forgets these are four-limbed, human bodies, and they become simply movement.  When paint is no longer paint, but light; when architecture is no longer brick and mortar, but mass and space itself.  I have heard this called dharma, soul, god; but I eschew spirituality and the labels that accompany it.  How much more awesome and satisfying it is to celebrate the humans that have created such works, and to know that we all have the capacity to create something which confuses our perception and humanity.

Artists in the world are constantly made to justify our own existence.  In school, artistry is the vehicle for improved "performance" in other subjects (as if they were unrelated); in work and adult life, art is reserved for the esoteric, or simply as diversion for the rest.  It may as well be called frivolity for some, and as a proponent of Effective Altruism, I often feel conflicted asking for monetary support of the arts when I know how expensive they are to produce, and how many lives can be saved by so little.

But art also saves lives.

It saves us from "quiet desperation," and from killing ourselves (Beethoven, for instance).  It gives us a reason to go on living.  When Churchill was asked to reduce arts funding in favor of the war effort, he said, "Then what are we fighting for?"

Why explore the arts?  Why study symphonies and stories?  I don't believe these are any more or less important that studying math or science.  I don't believe that history class (as if history could be separated from other pursuits) merits any more time or effort than dance.  If these "academic" pursuits aim to address how it is that we live and have lived, then the arts address why.  And while the question "Why do we live?" cannot be approached as though the answer will come from some authority, we can and do answer that question by saying something like Walt Whitman did:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.