Why are we drawn to the arts? I believe a primary reason is that the arts speak the language of transcendence. The experiences we most look forward to in life are moments of transcendence. Here I define transcendence broadly to simply mean: that which is beyond our ordinary or everyday experience. In other words, we all look forward to moments and experiences that are set apart from the “everydayness” and necessary routines of life. These transcendent experiences may be moments of intimacy, beauty, celebration, romance, peace, spiritual connection, culinary satisfaction, physical exertion, or aesthetic pleasure. But whatever we enjoy most in life, chances are it can be described as a crystallization of our heart’s desires; an uninterrupted experience set apart and concentrated around what we enjoy most.
This kind of transcendence defines the arts.
Music is transcendent sound. Our everyday experience bombards us with sound. But a skillful musician can take a lifeless instrument and produce an intentional arrangement and flow of sound that excites our emotions and lifts our spirits.
Using only the human voice, a skillful vocalist can carry the listener to a place of reflection, joy, or tears, powerfully touching the heart.
Poetry is transcendent language; the careful orchestration of words that evokes imagery, thoughts, and feelings in a way that everyday speech does not.
Dance is transcendent, trained movement. A well-trained dancer can hold an audience captive through the movement of his/her body, creating an aesthetic experience that takes us to a completely different place than does watching a street full of commuters on their way to work.
Painting is the transcendent arrangement of color and material. A gifted painter begins with a blank canvas and composes the elements of raw color into a nuanced visual statement that may touch our emotions.
Installation art is the transcendent arrangement of material – this material may even be the “everyday stuff” around us. But by human creativity and ingenuity it is arranged in such a way that it transforms the material and space, often creating a spectacular experience for the viewer.
And so it goes with all art forms. By definition the arts operate in the realm of transcendent experience.
I once had the pleasure of being part of a large ballet production. Having previously only watched ballet from the seats, watching from the wings as dancers came on and off stage only a few feet away from me was a completely new perspective. It was intensely human and earthy. I knew what the audience was seeing – beautifully choreographed stage-lit dancers, “effortlessly” leaping and spinning through space. But I was close enough to them to feel the rush of air as they blew past me, and I could see the glint of sweat on their muscles. I could hear their breath and the thud of pointe shoes on the floor as they entered the wings, and I could see them focus and gather themselves back up as they prepared to enter the line of sight of the audience again. For me it was like looking at the backside of a tapestry, or seeing a magician’s secrets. There really was no magic at all. Just human creativity, talent, and hard work, yet the end result was magical.
This is how art is produced – by a combination of creative inspiration, talent, and hard work. When we see artistic genius expressed, it may seem magical and astounding, perhaps because what we are seeing is something beyond our own known abilities. Because on some level we are all familiar with the ingredients of art – we’ve all plucked a string on an instrument, or attempted to paint a picture – when we experience deeply moving artistic expression, we innately know we’re sharing in the best of what human beings can bring. Our appreciation completes the process. We can embrace and enjoy the experience, and be enriched by another person’s transcendent expression.
So in speaking the language of transcendence, the arts are also communal and relational. Most art forms are experienced in a group setting. Even a solitary individual viewing an art museum exhibit is part of a larger group of patrons. Artistic expressions are experiences that we give to each other and receive from each other as part of the human community. Being on either the giving end, the receiving end, or both is something that we can all have the joy of being a part of.
All photos under copyright by Scott Freeman, 2013