Thursday, May 14, 2020

Musings in a Time of Crisis XVIII

Society needs artists, just as it needs scientists, technicians,
workers, professional people, witnesses of the faith,
teachers, fathers and mothers [. . . .]
~ Pope John Paul II, "Letter to Artists," 1999*

When life becomes too heavy to bear and circumstances too
dark to see a way forward, beauty has the ability
 to alleviate fear and offer hope.
Encaustic Painter

I shared recently on FaceBook two different but related articles:  Jody Hassett Sanchez's "Why Art and Beauty Matter During a Pandemic" (Christianity Today, May 1, 2020) and Michael Wilson's "The morgue worker who buys a daffodil for each body bag" (The Baltimore Sun, May 6, 2020). The former article begins by describing how shoppers at a Trader Joe's (location unspecified) never fail to pick up bouquets of fresh flowers before checking out. It then discusses from many perspectives the concept of beauty and why we turn to beauty when ill, fearful, in despair, confronting death. The latter article is about a forensic technician at a hospital in New Jersey who has a standing order to pick up and take to work every morning an armful of yellow daffodils, one each of which she places on every new body bag containing the remains of someone who has died of covid-19. Asked why, she said, "It was something I just did, out of being emotionally exhausted and depleted." It was, she also noted, "therapeutic."

Poems, visual art, virtual art exhibitions, virtual museum tours, virtual musical performances, streaming films, dance online, photos of meticulous food presentations, an armful of yellow daffodils: beauty in one or another form is all over our social media. #ShelterInPoems, #ArtHelps, #ArtHeals are just a few of the hashtags that often accompany what goes viral. Artists post throughout the day images of work in progress, completed projects, or projects about to begin. While the quality of the initiatives varies, the posting never ceases. Nor does the sharing, whenever something grabs our attention, leaves us in awe or wonder, or moves us to experience an emotion that a moment ago we did not feel. We may be moved to tears, provoked to laugh, left to reflect on our own small place in the universe, relieved to feel, finally, a connection. In this pandemic, which has so deprived us of touch and daily reminds us of death, to feel a connection is to experience hope.


The Experiment Station, the blog of The Phillips Collection, one of my favorite museums in Washington, D.C., offered on May 8, a commentary on artist Ben Shahn's Still Music written by music director Jeremy Ney: "I Miss Ben Shahn's Still Music". The post prompted me to write the following ekphrastic poem.

Ben Shahn, Still Music, 1948
Casein on Fabric Mounted on Plywood Panel
48" x 83-1/2"
Acquired 1949 by The Phillips Collection

They've Stopped Playing

They've stopped playing
musical chairs the way

we're used to: no violinists
up front, slightly off-center,

their smooth fingering
and bowing everything

we've come to expect.

No dropping by rehearsal.
The concert hall curtains

are drawn, first chairs all
wily-nily, stands empty

of notes, sharps and flats
inaudible, double-doors

locked against pandemic entry.

Musicians, sheltering
at home, risk the noise

complaints to practice,
knowing no one can tell

them when intermission
will end, when each will

rise from a hard-back seat
and nod encores to the end

of spring's sullen silence.


* The quote from "Letter to Artists" is in the section titled "The artist and the common good". 

Renee Phillips, "Art Enhances Brain Function and Well-Being," The Healing Power of Art & Artists (September 2019)

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