What is art? Laura and I have been discussing this subject passionately for the past twenty-something years. I can’t say we’ve arrived at any firm conclusions, but let me throw one more log on the fire right here.
We were visiting the Art Museum here in Puerto Rico a few months ago and I found myself in front of this painting. Here’s the best image I could find with the artist, Francisco Rodón.
So I walked up a winding staircase and came upon this huge painting of Luis Muñoz Marin, first elected governor of Puerto Rico in the Puerto Rico Art Museum. I was moved. It was beautiful, exquisite, composition, colors, impactful. First there came a slight choke, then full on tears running down my face. This is silly, I thought. What is wrong with me? Am I having a stroke or something. Sheesh, get a grip, Jim. I wiped my eyes and tried to focus on the details of the portrait, the rivulets of color flowing and gathering in little pools and the patchwork of earthen colors, like seen from high above, farmland, the very face of Puerto Rico. I peered into the tired eyes of Marin. I have done so much. I have seen so much. I am tired. I wish I could have done more, but I am old now. There is pain in the painting, palpable pain. But it is beautiful too, compelling. I could not tear my eyes away as I experienced the entirety of Puerto Rican 20th century history.
I didn’t try to dissect it in that moment. I couldn’t, a mess I was, overcome with what poured out like a tidal wave. It was all I could do to just stay afloat for the ride and try not to drown. It wasn’t until a few months later, reflecting on the experience, and after attempting to explain it others, that it hit me.
This piece is beauty and pain. The best art, like life, is beauty and pain.
To contrast: too beautiful, too pretty, too sweet; it’s a simple gumdrop, a sugary treat bursting in your mouth and gone. Shallow sentimentality doesn’t stay with you, does it? It won’t nourish you. At best it’s a way to mark time, a momentary distraction. Here we have majestic paintings of mountains, beautiful morning lit scenes leading to a little brook, and some pretty flowers. It’s nice, and matches the drapes too. Would that work its way into your soul?
Rodón, could have done this painting much darker, austere desaturated colors, darker shadows, sunken eyes. He could have rendered the patches all angular and jagged. He could have scrawled some political slogan across the middle, an ugly reminder of tribalism in politics. He could have defaced it to “really get in your face.” He could have done so many things if all he wanted was to thrust pain and dissonance upon us, but he knew that there was beauty there too. He painted with such tenderness for Luis Muñoz Marin. Cariño. He made me see beauty in this old man after his life’s dedication, of the battles won and lost, of progress, of mistakes. It was worth doing, but it was hard.
Now, too painful, too cynical, and you risk losing yourself to despair. And suffering for suffering’s sake is a pointless exercise. It will find you, trust me.
Think about art, and if you are honest with yourself, you will find that it does need to be beautiful. It needs to be terribly beautiful, not pretty with little pastel sailboats hung over a couch, but terribly painfully beautiful. And it must challenge you, but not for the sake of shock alone. Art shouldn’t just throw shit in your face and say, see? that’s what shit smells like. Isn’t it shocking? Too cynical, and it loses its measure of humanity. Pain is real, and all people know it. We humans are acquainted with pain in all its varieties. Art should elevate the dialog of pain, not just use it like a cudgel. That is for the lazy and the shallow. An artist’s job is to capture authenticity, and it takes a reverence and sincerity you can’t fake.