Feeling the Power of Art

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Celebrating the art that pulls us in and doesn’t let go.

This past February, I had the opportunity to fulfill one of my dreams since high school: experience a live performance of Richard Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser. That may not sound like much of a dream to most people, but that piece of music literally changed my life the first time I heard it. Not only did it spark my ongoing passion for classical music, it marked the first time that I actually felt the power of art.

The memory of that special moment is still vivid. It was 1993, and I had recently decided it would be cool to dive into classical music while the rest of my freshman peers were into hip-hop and grunge rock. While I enjoyed the likes of Bach and Beethoven, I wanted to dig deeper into some of the composers I wasn’t already familiar with.

At that point, my familiarity with Wagner started and stopped with “Ride of the Valkyries,” and I remember wondering if there was more to him than that ubiquitous piece. I picked up a greatest hits CD on a whim and let it play uninterrupted one Saturday afternoon while I sat in my bedroom playing video games. Within the first two minutes of Tannhäuser, I dropped the controller and just sat there listening to what was floating out of my stereo. It was the first time I experienced awe while listening to music, and the overwhelming beauty of the melody gave me goose bumps. Later listens have even moved me to tears, which has both fascinated and embarrassed me, depending on where I am when it happens.

NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich recently shared a similar story about the first time he was moved by a particular work of art. He writes that he was 8 years old at the time and visiting the Museum of Modern Art with his father one Sunday afternoon:

It was a woodland scene, a blur of greens, blues and purples, a tumble of rocks in the foreground, tall pines, branching into a blue sky, breaking up into arabesques. It had no people in it, no girls, nothing I recognized. But with a force that felt like a fist, it jerked my head to it—almost as if it were calling out, “You!”—like it knew me. Like it wanted to pull me to it and tell me something—something personal. But what? I had no idea. Nothing like this had ever happened to me. Furniture, pictures, carpets had always stayed in their place, being, after all, things. But not this thing. It had power.

The painting that had taken such a hold of Krulwich turned out to be Pine and Rocks by Paul Cézanne–a picture that, to this day, still holds a captivating power over him whenever he sees it. But how does one explain why an 8-year-old boy with no point of reference to art or Cézanne would be so immediately and completely drawn into one of his paintings upon first sight? Krulwich offers an interesting theory:

We are born with a sort of mood in us, a mood that comes to us through our genes, that will be seasoned by experience, but deep down, it’s already there, looking for company, for someone to share itself with, and when we happen on the right piece of music, the right person, or, in this case the right artist, then, with a muscle that is as deep as ourselves, with the force of someone grabbing for a life preserver, we attach.

What Krulwich describes here is the reason why humankind, for as far back as we can trace it, has found creative expression such a vital function. It’s one of the few ways our species can overcome the barriers of language, culture, and even time, to communicate emotions and big ideas that we all can inherently relate to. Even Wagner—a man whose reprehensible world view conflicts with the beauty of his music—was capable of making sublime art that speaks the universal language of all humankind—past, present, and future. It’s in his case that we see even clearer the true power of art: the ability of the message to transcend the messenger.

So this past February, as I listened to the visiting Cleveland Orchestra perform the Overture to Tannhäuser in the University of Kansas’ Lied Center concert hall, it was as beautiful as I’d always imagined it would be. I didn’t feel compelled to analyze or justify anything—I simply chose to listen. It was just me, the music, the goose bumps, and a Kleenex nearby, just in case.

What work of art has pulled you in and won’t let go? Share your story in the comments.

Photo credit: Cleveland Orchestra at The Lied Center, University of Kansas; courtesy of Christian Williams.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com

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