Last Friday I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario, where I saw some of the work of Evan Penny (http://bit.ly/T8yMjM). Penny is an artist who challenges the way we see the world. From a distance, or from a particular angle, his sculpture exhibit photographic accuracy and detail. But as I stepped closer, things went askew: this or that wasout of proportion. When I was face to face with a piece, this feeling intensified: the sculpture was profoundly disturbing in some way and I began to feel a wave of anomie and uncertainty sweep over me. The world spun a bit, and I felt as if I needed to grab on to something, someone, some reassurance that the world was not about to topple.
This is art of the highest order.
But what does this mean? Surely the pieces are an important commentary on the means by which consumers of goods and pop culture both are surreptitiously schooled to anticipate what image makers have decided is “normal.” Airbrushed models become a canon by which we judge beauty. Yet there is more here than meets the eye. The Greeks taught us that beauty is at one with truth and goodness, and so where one is skewed in our mind’s eye, so too are the other two. In short, when our understanding of beauty is bent, our take on truth and goodness are also amiss.
What to do?
Certainly we need to attend to folk like Penny – artists and poets who invite us to see, not so much another world, as the world that really is. Above all, the best of these invite us first to receive the world as it comes to us raw. It is interesting to note that the great poetic articulation of creation in the book of Genesis repeatedly announces “it is good” with each step of creation. This becomes a kind of ritual of reception of the world: look for the good in what is instead of fixating on what is wrong, or what should be. But beyond that, good art invites us to create because therein we learn something of what it means to be “in the image of God” – in the language of that same epic poem. To be human is to be creating: not perfectly but persistently – reveling in the realization that “it is good” is not the end-point, but the beginning of poetry, of painting, of patience.