Thursday, June 23, 2011

Useless Beauty

What do Mt. Rushmore, elk antlers and a building called the Corn Palace have in common? I’ll give you a hint. Think Snow Sculpture Festival in Edmonton, Hubcap Ranch in Napa Valley, bamboo archways and xylophones in Bali, imbenge baskets from South Africa—all variations on “use what you’ve got.” (Or more proverbially, “When you’ve got lemons, make lemonade.” Having finally arrived at hot weather on the first official day of summer, that sounds appealing.)

The antlers are found in the hills of the Tetons, not only elk, but deer and moose as well. The Boy Scouts collect them and sell them and if you go to the plaza in the center of town in Jackson Hole, you’ll see four archways made entirely from elk antlers. The stores sell antler chandeliers, antler sculptures, and just plain antlers. The next state over, you can see the stone mountains of the Badlands and lo and behold, there are four large faces starting down from Mt. Rushmore. And nearby is Crazy Horse looking out from his perch. A bit further down the road in Mitchell, South Dakota, you can stop at the Corn Palace and see the murals on the outside made from—well, corn. (Still hoping to learn how to include photos—meanwhile, you can probably find images online.)

There indeed is a snow sculpture festival in Edmonton, equally remarkable sand sculptures on the beach at Rio, a ranch in Napa Valley with hundreds of hubcaps artfully arranged. Bali has scores of instruments and artwork made from bamboo, the South African imbenge baskets are made from discarded telephone wire, the galimotos in Ghana from old soda cans and such. Use what’s around you. That’s what humans have been doing for millennium and it’s one of the things that makes the art and technology of one place different from another.

Daniel Pink’s new book Drive talks about the importance of “intrinsic motivation” as a deep human instinct, but mostly uses examples from the computer world. People working from love and curiosity and making something useful—like the capacity to write this Blog online without either you or me having to pay for it. But there’s another kind of work we do that has no practical application at all. It’s entirely useless and yet, it gets us off the couch and out the door. It’s called art. It brings tourists flocking from miles around to witness the 17-year project that left four faces on Mt. Rushmore. Talk about intrinsic motivation! Imagine getting up every day for 17 years to chip away a little bit more rock to fulfill some inner vision and make it visible to the world.

Which is precisely what people called artists do. They’re no different from you or me, except that this urge to express something that we all share is in the driver’s seat instead of tucked away in the glove compartment. Like poet William Stafford, they might wake up early every day to write a poem with no idea what might appear on the paper or whether it will ever be sandwiched between two covers and available at the bookstore. Like Charlie Parker, they might wash dishes at a 52nd St. jazz club just so they could hear Art Tatum play and then go home and practice.

In Victor Hugo’s epic Les Miserables (yes, it was a book before the musical), a Bishop is showing off his flower garden and his visitor remarks:

“You are always eager to make everything useful, yet here is a useless plot. It would be much better to have salads here than bouquets.”

…the Bishop replied, “You are mistaken. The beautiful is as useful as the useful.” He added after a moment’s pause. “Perhaps more so.”

William Carlos Williams put it another way:

“It is difficult to get the news from poems, but men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

It has been a while since I’ve stepped up on the soapbox of arts advocacy, but I’m still getting e-mails from music teachers whose jobs have been cut. We should note that people are not driving off the freeway exit to marvel at someone’s math test. Be it Mt. Rushmore, the Corn Palace or a bunch of antlers artfully stacked, art adds a brightness to our day and reminds us of a life beyond the ordinary and mundane.

If we really pay attention, we might also be deeply moved by the original art of mountains carved by wind, rain and time, corn growing in the field and antlers atop the heads of elks. We humans are mere imitators, after all. But from the first cave paintings in southern France to sculptures made from hubcaps, the human urge to co-participate in creation is profound, thrilling and worthy of attention. School boards, take note.

Meanwhile, praise to all who’ve taken a moment from their day to pile stones in interesting formations, create a piece of art from old cell phones, make music from abandoned oil barrels. Useless beauty that somehow is necessary.

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