VVP: Art 434 & Engl. 410

Website for Vision Voice and Practice: An Interdisciplinary Course in Art and Creative Writing

Monday, March 9, 2009

L'Engle, Privilege, and Work

We read Madeline L'Engle last week, from her book Walking on Water, and I noted this passage in our discussion:

When spring-fed Dog Pond warms up enough for swimming, which usually isn't until June, I often go there in the late afternoon. Sometimes I will sit on a sun-warmed rock to dry, and think of Peter walking across the water to meet Jesus. As long as he didn't remember that we human beings have forgotten how to walk on water, he was able to do it.
I said I was troubled by this passage, because it suggests to me an unawareness on L'Engle's part that her ability to contemplate beauty and faith--in this particular context--derives from her privilege. She has access--by ownership, by friendship, by leisure--to enjoy the beauty of "spring-fed Dog Pond," which raises the question: Is art for the privileged, for the people who have time and means to contemplate it? Is my own participation in art merely a product of being born into an upper-middle-class family, with parents who could finance my higher education while I dabbled in this and that?

This week we'll read Auden, who writes the following about the poet:

The condition of mankind is, and always has been, so miserable and depraved that, if anyone were to say to the poet: "For God's sake stop singing and do something useful like putting on the kettle or fetching bandages," what just reason could he give for refusing? But nobody says this. The self-appointed unqualified nurse says: "You are to sing the patient a song which will make him believe that I, and I alone, can cure him. If you can't or won't, I shall confiscate your passport and send you to the mines." And the poor patient in his delirium cries: "Please sing me a song which will give me sweet dreams instead of nightmares. If you succeed, I will give you a penthouse in New York or a ranch in Arizona."
(Which suggests I'm either failing spectacularly as a writer or I'm singing to the wrong people.)

Free-lance philosopher (really? wow!) Jonathan Ree, on the other hand, suggests there's an ethical upshot to contemplating beauty (which isn't to say all art is conventionally beautiful):
Beauty is not only a source of pleasure but also an ethical summons, requiring us to “renounce our narcissism and look with reverence on the world,” and offering intimations of the sacred even to those who have no truck with religious belief.
Could it be that the young men in this heartening story, college-educated both of them, and like me, children of privilege, were influenced by beauty, or a contemplation of art? Did their classes in literature or art history--or whatever they took in the humanities--have any influence in their bold plan for revitalizing their hometown, when they could have chosen more personally lucrative paths? Are they, in fact, in the process of renouncing their narcissism? I don't know. But, as L'Engle might say, their actions, seen from the right angle, could be understood as two men remembering how to walk on water.

No comments:

Post a Comment