Angels are fearsome. In the Bible, whenever an angel greets someone, they must insist, “Do not be afraid.” Artists, perhaps, are also fearsome. They take tragedy and chaos and squeeze the beauty from it, putting into perspective the world around them for society to enjoy and question.
Bruce Herman, an artist, husband and professor at Gordon College, spoke at the Templeton Honors College’s Speaker Series on Friday, April 8. Herman, most profoundly, mentioned the importance of vulnerability when engaging with art. He said that when encountering a piece, it’s essential that we “let our guard down,” or else we’ll never “see” the art in front of us. No expectations. Whether it be a painting, piece of music, poem or even movie, if we predispose ourselves to like or not like the style, we won’t appreciate the piece for what it’s truly worth: a contribution to the cultural society we live in.
Every piece of art is a snapshot of a moment in society, whether it be personal or cultural. Herman showed photos of a Ukrainian couple getting married during the war. Despite the terror and brutality of the war, these people still found a way to make something beautiful out of the chaos. Like this strong, beautiful couple, artists take tragic and horrifying moments and paint them in ways that show their beauty, even if it isn’t obvious. Herman emphasized that we need artists in the world because who else is going to take the “heap of broken images” and bring them permanence and remembrance? Herman’s overall talk focused on four vital aspects that artists bring to society as strangers and outsiders.
Play Oftentimes, in academia, everything is work hard, work hard. But artists play with colors, themes, media and subjects to articulate points and create pieces. When listening to music, people are not only able to dance but have a reason to. Metaphorically, the same goes with encountering another piece of art, like a painting or poem.
Exile Sometimes, in order for artists to create something representative of society, they have to be removed from society first. Perhaps artists are “boundary-scout” outsiders who test the waters before the rest of society can safely swim. Artists step outside the normal bounds of society to bring detail to the dangers and nuances of the world we inhabit.
Herman mentioned Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time composed while Messiaen was in the Gulag. The prison guards knew that he was a famous composer and smuggled in paper and a pencil so he could compose a piece of music. They also helped smuggle instruments for imprisoned musicians to perform the piece. Even in a time of extreme isolation and depression, an enigmatic piece of beauty was created. Herman also stressed that people need the beauty of art and often can’t resist it. This is why the prison guards assisted Messiaen; they couldn’t help themselves.
Symbol Symbol, according to Hans Georg Gadamer, “is that other fragment that has always been sought in order to complete and make whole our own fragmentary life.” Herman connected symbol with art and hospitality. He shared Tim Lowly’s collaborative creations of his disabled daughter, in which communities and artists combined to paint a small panel of a larger photo and add small dots to one larger painting. Without the hospitality of others, like a strong community around Lowly or the generosity of the prison guards in Messiaen’s Gulag days, art wouldn’t flourish.
Festival Play and symbol both tied into the aspect of festival as well. Gathering together in hospitality and joy to create a work of art is meaningful and shows society’s appreciation for the beautiful in the obscure.
Finally, Herman walked us through a project he worked on with British poet Malcom Guite. All four aspects of Herman’s talk felt present in this final piece. “Play” was captured in the ways Herman used red streaks to begin Guite’s portrait. Herman’s unconventional start to the painting threw Guite out of his comfort zone. Guite seemed to lose sight of himself not only in the painting, but inside himself.
This was the exile, felt not by the artist, but by the subject. Exiled from himself, Guite initially struggled to find his identity. However, as the painting came together, symbol began to emerge. Guite’s image became more clear; he began to be more hospitable to the painting and let himself in. The end result was the festival of the process; the artwork was complete.
Bruce Herman’s perspective on artist as needed outsider reflects a lot of the fight current arts teachers and students are battling today. Often, the strict curriculums of public schools cause arts programs to be cut, but cut with them are students’ creative outlets. Herman emphasized that if we are to continue to flourish in this world, we might need to be caught off guard. Artists are the ones who disturb us in the most beautiful, mysterious ways.
A video of Bruce Herman's full talk can be found here on our Templeton Vimeo account.