Why artwork and wonder matter throughout a pandemic

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Trader Joe's cashier couldn't get over how many fresh flowers customers bought during the pandemic. "People load their carts with pasta and frozen food and then buy at least two bouquets," she told me. "It doesn't really make sense."

Beauty remains, especially in times of uncertainty or need. The Holocaust survivor and concert pianist Alice Herz-Sommer performed more than 150 concerts in the two years she spent in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. She later said to a reporter, "People ask," How can you make music? "We were so weak. But music was special, like magic … the world is wonderful. It is full of beauty."

While some of us are first responders or have lost a loved one to COVID-19, most of us are struggling with circumstances that are far less devastating than those of Heart-Summer. Still, death stares at us hourly through the flashy news graphics that track the many people lost by the virus.

"If we live under the stress of the pandemic every day, our need for beauty is on the surface – we can feel it, even if we can't fully articulate it," said Charlie Peacock. The four-time Grammy winner, composer, producer and recording artist has worked with everyone from Switchfoot to The Civil Wars. “The professional beauty makers are grateful to work overtime to meet this need. When was there ever a time when so many artists of all kinds shared beauty with the world – for free? "

Image: "Confident of This" by Charlie Peacock

He creates new music and paintings every day while quarantining in Nashville, including a song with his girlfriend Sarah Masen Dark. "It didn't start commenting on our new world, but as I gradually learned what my own work made me think and feel, I think it's connected."

Peacock is not alone. Historically, poets, painters, philosophers and theologians have argued that beauty is even more important in our darkest periods.

Pope John Paul II, in his 1999 "Letter to Artists", affirmed that "society needs artists just as it needs scientists, technicians, workers, specialists, witnesses, teachers, fathers and mothers". This pandemic requires first responders, scientists, groceries, deliverers, and, yes, artists who are aware of their responsibilities, as Pope Francis put it, to be “guardians of beauty, heralds, and witnesses of hope for mankind”.

Scientists may try, but beauty cannot be measured by the same data that defines our current disposition.

“We cannot have that. Beauty is the result of the cooperation of truthfulness, mastery and kindness, ”said the encaustician Marissa Voytenko. She uses the old hot wax technique to create abstract works that have been exhibited in the United States and Ukraine. "When life gets too difficult and circumstances are too dark to see a way forward, beauty can relieve fear and offer hope."

Image: "The least of it will be a thousand" by Marissa Voytenko

Mary Amendolia Gardner, priest and spiritual leader in Northern Virginia, leads seekers and believers to Visio Divina, or sacred vision, a spiritual practice to focus distracted thoughts. She asks participants to sit in front of an artwork for five to ten minutes to become more aware of God's care and attention in their lives.

"In times of uncertainty, illness, despair and death, beauty is more than a distraction," she said. "Beauty is a human connection point that becomes the catalyst for the connection to the transcendent."

Many of the best museums in the world offer free virtual tours to enable encounters with exceptional works of art. Many major masterpieces in these galleries exquisitely evoke human suffering over the centuries and force us to think about our own mortality. It is valuable to be reminded of this by studying a painting instead of another message or graphic.

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In her book on Beauty and Justice, Yale philosopher Elaine Scarry states that beauty has the effect of "radically decentering" us. Others have argued that thinking about beauty works in times of pain and distress is wrong. As is well known, the German emigrant philosopher Theodor Adorno explained that it was barbaric to "write poems after Auschwitz". But Scarry suggests the opposite that beauty actually opens us to the injustices and injustices of human life.

Bruce Herman has been thinking about T. S. Eliot's notes on defining culture while he is currently seeking shelter at home. In his post-war essays, Eliot discusses how artists, authors, philosophers and theologians can continue to "make sense" in the face of senselessness and loss. Herman insists that it is imperative to make music, art and poetry when the world we know has been destroyed.

Image: "Riven Tree" by Bruce Herman

Herman is a professor at Gordon College and a painter, whose works can be found in the permanent collections of the Vatican Museum of Modern Religious Art and the Hammer Museum. He has lost three brothers, both parents, his grandparents and other family members, to suicide, cancer and other illnesses.

"I am no stranger to grief, death and suffering," he said.

Still, I still believe that beauty cannot only be persecuted in a time like ours, but must also be persecuted. … Beauty is not glued to suffering, but grows out of it – like the proverbial drive from dry soil – and breaks the hardness of concrete or asphalt with green growth and hope.

Is the longing for beauty something that only healthy, well-nourished and protected people have? The evidence against it is everywhere from the caves of Lascaux to the Sistine ceiling; from Shakespeare to the anthems written in time or war and loss.

In his essay Beauty in the Light of Redemption, Dietrich von Hildebrand defends beauty against arguments that serve no practical purpose: “The function of the senses and the visible and audible content in this experience is humble, humble: they are a pedestal, a mirror for something much higher. "

We usually race around the world, barely noticing our surroundings or staring at our phones, as one picture quickly replaces the previous one. Now that we are in self-quarantine in six weeks, we have the opportunity to practice a new discipline – to actively perceive the beauty that is offered all around us, to go back and look or listen again. Beauty does not distract us from what is essential, but can bring us closer to all that is good and holy and healing.

Jody Hassett Sanchez is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. Your film More art upstairsArt and Beauty Research is available on iTunes and Amazon Prime.

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