Thursday, July 07, 2011

Transient Art

14For he knows our frame;[a]
   he remembers that we are dust. 15As for man, his days are like grass;
   he flourishes like a flower of the field;
16for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
   and its place knows it no more.

Psalm 103:14-16

I love to start with word definitions. It seems to ground what I'm thinking and articulate words. Transient: –adjective
1.not lasting, enduring, or permanent; transitory.
2.lasting only a short time; existing briefly; temporary
3. staying only a short time: 

Synonyms: fleeting, flitting, flying, fugitive, evanescent

Over a week ago, I had the privilege to attend "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee", performed at the Boal Barn by a local, summer theatre group. There were community members in the cast and production crew as well as several PSU students. Maggie Cox, dear college friend and house mate from last fall, was the vocal director for the cast and offered to take me and Emily Kerner to the opening night. It was a glimpse into her "other world": music. While Emily and I know her primarily through our college involvement in Navigators (campus ministry) and through sharing a common faith, we have known that Maggie existed in other realms than in the ones we typically saw her. She majored in music education with an emphasis on voice. Seeing her in this role was new for us and a special gift.

 The evening was really lovely. I enjoyed the musical, laughing often especially when reminded (sometimes painfully) of myself in junior high and my fanatic devotion to Bible quizzing (the parallels were eerie). Maggie's response was fun to witness. She could only be described as proud and took a special delight in what each cast member was able to perform with their voice. Maggie has a gift that permeates her life in being able to bring out the best in people and her ability to bring out the best in someone's voice is part of that larger gift. 

After the show, she drove me home and we talked a little bit about what it was like for her to see her work be done. She said it was strange to realize that her part in the musical was over the moment an audience was present. No more coaching or instruction. Only what could be given in the performance and experienced by the audience. Months of work and training suddenly completed and done with only one week of performances.

This prompted our talk to turn towards thoughts on art and the way we invest in making things and how all of that comes to an end at some point. Maggie said she doesn't really make art, but I argued that her art was someone else's voice and the brief, passing moment of performance. We agreed that there is something visceral and vulnerable about live performance of any kind, and perhaps that is part of it being completely transient. It lasts but a moment. It hardly seems practical. Yet the human race returns again and again, from centers of culture like NYC to the Boal Barn in State College, to instances of disappearing moments, beauty turned into memory and works hard to make them happen, to make them good. What does it matter? Like I insisted to my mom many times, why make the bed if I'm going to get in it in a few hours? Why all this repetition? And worse than repetition, why all this investment into moments that will never come again, are never repeatable?

Our relationship the transient has changed. It surprises me when I consider that 100 years ago, music was only a performance event. It could only be experienced if someone was playing it, even if it was playing a song that had been played a thousand times before. Music was always different. With the advent of Edison's voice recording technology, music can be preserved from specific moments of performance, evolving to a small pocket devise that can give me access to The Wailin' Jennys and Jon Foreman at any moment. Theater has also been preserved in film. However, I think that is a good example of the inadequacies in "preserving". It is a shadow of the real thing, something that disappointed me again and again when watching videos of plays from my highschool years.

Makoto Fujimura notes in his essay on "Art of Dance" (from his collection titled "Refractions"), that perhaps this fleeting art is still worth dedicating our lives to. He explores in depth reasons why the support of the arts should take special care to support dance and those who spend their lives to be able to complete one split moment of skill and perfect expression. There may not even be an audience. Even if there is, they will soon forget the moment or fail to recognize its worth. They will not be unchanged, however. All of a life well lived is working towards one moment, but one that is somehow capable of making things whole and complete. And to encourage art that passes is to remind us our own position as "flowers in the field". This is not to induce despair but to acknowledge hope. We live a life that will not remember us. No ground we walk on will take pleasure in declaring that we walked on it. No dance we do will be remembered by the air we pass through.

And it is worth doing because in its passing beauty, there is glory:

But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him...
19The LORD has established his throne in the heavens,
   and his kingdom rules over all.
 Psalm 103:17-19

Steadfast. Everlasting that runs into the next everlasting. A kingdom that not only remembers but is the beauty captured, hinted at,  in one note hit well with a human voice.

Bless the LORD, O my soul!

Much love to dear Maggie Cox, who inspires me with her art and her teaching. You make things beautiful.

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