Gretchen and I spent the day yesterday walking along Grand Avenue in LA. My folks had driven down to watch Sophia, giving us a rare free day, so we decided to ride the subway downtown to the Museum of Contemporary Art. They have an extensive collection of works by Mark Rothko, whom I love. What I didn’t do was call ahead and see if they had actually bothered to take any of the Rothko’s out of storage and hang them on the wall. They hadn’t. So instead, we got to see an exhibition called “After Cézanne”. The exhibit explored how artists’ conception of the human body had evolved in the years since Paul Cézanne’s hugely influential pre-modernist paintings of nude bathers.
It was an exploration of despair, from one end to the other. Which is not to say that it was bad art, but that all of the works seemed to speak with a singular kind of voice, and that voice despaired of any possibility of a transcendent human experience. It explored the human body as a kind of machine for living, a machine that acted in violence, in ignorance, in a brutish kind of sensuality, and in voyeurism. In the same way that modernism in architecture tried to reduce buildings to pure transmutable functionalism, the works of these modern artists tried to reduce our human bodies into a functional kind of meat sack for enacting the animalistic impulses of soulless minds.
There was no joy. There was no beauty. There was no transcendence. There was little material for reflection, for exploration, that did not immediately devolve into gross violation of the human spirit.We left, and walked north up Grand Avenue, past the new Walt Disney Concert Hall. I started to feel better. I started to remember that we have not lost the ability to create art that sparks creativity, that speaks to the part of us that revels in the act of living. We are not machines, we are not complex levers of muscle and sinew, constructed to enact the impulses of soulless minds. We are human beings, people connected to this earth by sense and experience, but made apart from it by transcendent acts, acts that touch the eternal substance of the created world, not the temporal manifestation of it. We are human beings, and we strive always to live not as dust, not as breath, but as the beautifully intertwined balance of the two that makes us the Children of God.
The LA Phil is playing through all of Beethoven’s symphonies this season. Gretchen and I are going to make the trip back downtown to hear them play the 5th. I can think of no better statement of the transcendent hope of human creativity than that piece, played in this venue, in this city.
We emerged from the tragic humanism of MOCA, and past the soaring hope of Gehry’s Disney Hall, and what better way to complete the transformation than to end up at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
At the back of the cathedral, there is a fountain of Holy Water. Rising above it is a mural of Jesus being baptized by John. I stood in the back of the enormous room, listening the the thunderous chords of the organist, the scent of candles lingering in the air, and facing the mural, wept.
We are not machines for living. We are not people of despair. We are not the tragic consequence of fate.
But we are not divine, either. We are not the gods and goddesses of the pantheon, propelled by perfect hubris through the mundane trappings of mortality for a little while.
We are imperfect Eikons. We are the breath of God in broken pieces. We are human beings, and we live suspended between two world. We create because, in that act, we unite dust and breath, and our physical selves commune with our spiritual selves. We are the people of the descending God, who emptied himself to stand on our thresholds, not once, but three times. He descended with breath to give us life. He descended with self to give us new life. He descended with spirit to give us full life. We are the thrice blessed people of the twilight, who echo the songs of heaven with guttural voices.
We are human beings, born of clay, yet touching the sky.