Why do anything?
During Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the Pharisees tried to silence the children who were praising him. In that unstoppable moment, Jesus proclaimed that they must, “for if they did not, the very rocks would cry out”.
It sounds like a pretty good reason. You couldn’t not do something.
It also reminds me of an urban legend about students who came to hear words of wisdom from a famous author. They wanted some pointers on how to get published. Instead the speaker got up to the podium and asked, “You want to be writers?” Affirmations of grunts and nods from the crowd. “So why aren’t you at home writing?” he admonished. It sounds provocative, but there are things you cannot stop yourself from doing, if seized by the impetus.
You cannot fake the creative spark. It is for that reason that I carry a pen and paper for those moments of reverie when I am going for a walk, or driving in my car. I have to stop at traffic lights and jot down the strange notions falling into my head that I could never call up under duress. It’s a strange word - reverie. It means that you are dreaming while awake. As an artist, I think it is the time when you are most awake because you are in contact with the right-brain kind of thinking that you cannot drum up on your own.
It is a phenomenon experienced time and again with artists and musicians, even craftsmen like woodworkers - an odd dance with an outside agency, a spark that you can neither summon, nor quell when it is in full force. It is gift and mystery combined. You reach out for God, and God reaches back. It is wrestling with the something more to which we are beholden not only for beauty, but for all good things.
Yes, there is some necessary craft. Michelangelo had to know how to sculpt marble to make David. But knowing how to sculpt marble will not make you a Michelangelo. When asked how he created that famous sculpture, Michelangelo said “I took the block of marble and chipped away everything that was not David”. It is a response that would make sense only to an artist, for those times when the hand which guides you comes from an intuitive outside force that just flows through you. It calls you into the mysterious dance with a transcendent beauty which we only occasionally touch. Musicians feel it too. Leonard Cohen when asked about writing, famously replied, “If I knew the place where good songs were kept, I would visit there more often”.
The most frustrating thing about art, is that ebb and flow. You do art over and again, but the degree of inspiration that accompanies it is a force unto itself. Leonardo Da Vinci did many paintings in the course of his lifetime, but not every one was a Mona Lisa. What made that one singularly different?
Why do people come from all over the world to stare at this tiny canvas, held back by a velvet rope and a coterie of guards? You are not allowed to photograph the Mona Lisa. The museum is afraid that the exposure to light will ruin the canvas. Its allure is the common language of art to which we are mute witnesses, the je-ne-sais-croix when you just stare silently and take it all in. There is nothing you could add, because you are in that holy state we call awe. It is the only possible response to true art.
There is an exquisite pain involved with the ebb and flow of true inspiration. It is the inevitable wound that comes from being seized by God - the odd balance of being open and vulnerable enough to listen, but at the same time striving not be destroyed by what you receive. Jacob experienced it as a lifelong limp, when he was ambushed by an angel in the cover of darkness and wrestled all night long for his very soul.
The prophet Isaiah described a similar experience for words that came to him unbidden when he awoke in the morning. “The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary: morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear...” He could not help his odd gift. It came with some pain and some wonder, the strange lot of prophets and artists alike.
There are many reasons to pursue art and beauty. But couldn’t not, might be the best and most bewildering reason of all.