The Activity of Free Minds: Subtlety & Art in These Political Times

Stolen by Nazis, a Rembrandt is recovered as a part of the Monuments Men effort during WWII. 

Stolen by Nazis, a Rembrandt is recovered as a part of the Monuments Men effort during WWII. 

These are bombastic days. I don't want that to be too acute, between North Korea and terror attacks across Europe, but our headlines bleed. Whether left- or right-wing, institutions are in upheaval and constituents who were politically apathetic before are now scrolling newsfeeds. We are re-examining many things, identity politics aside: states’ rights as pertaining to federal immigration reform, lack of free speech on college campuses, an omnipotent surveillance state that wrings dry the very arteries of our personal liberties. Our society is at a crucial crossroads, and no amount of analysis or polling is needed to tell us that. The air thrums with it, our pay stubs spell it, and our smartphones record the video.

In the midst of this is expression: to convey disgust or support, to deride or delight, to hurl one set of facts against another. This expression is the cornerstone of our times, the bit in the engine which must be most well-oiled, because once one voice is censored, all must be. Freedom of expression has nothing to do with echoing views parallel to your own, but rather everything to do with the humility and legality of allowing those discordant to speak. Both sides revel in the silencing of the other. Both sides revel in trolling, hate speech, and violence. Neither side accepts responsibility for their own corruption and groupthink, but rather whips their acolytes into a frenzy, into a fever pitch played out with bike locks and bullets, the foam at their mouths too thick to allow for coherent, calm argument to bubble out instead.

As an American citizen who believes in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, I am disgusted by us.

As an American citizen whose mother immigrated from a totalitarian, Marxist regime, I am disgusted by us.

And yet, there is a cure in the house.

I turn from the bombastic, and seek solitude in its antithesis: Subtlety.

As much as I yearn for Subtlety in political debate and moderation in policy, I seek it out in the velvety corners of Dutch interiors, the curving of elbows in Mannerist art, or the domestic embrace of early quilts.

As much as I crave Subtlety in Tweets and panels, I find it in the faded glow of Medieval gilding, the curling fingers in Persian miniatures, or the flush of sumi ink as it compresses and dilutes.

Our cultural institutions are more poignant and necessary than ever. We can unplug from our current onslaught and seek sanctuary in galleries or in notes of music. Words, coagulating into prose and poetry, release us; stages, aloft and alive, enthrall us. Your political affiliation is irrelevant. Your voting record is inconsequential. Together, Americans are setting attendance records at art museums. 

Might some of those increasing numbers be due to the fact that amongst all this ideological conflict, we want to remember the very root of us? Regardless of continent or era or race, we see things, and our voices and our hands fashion things. We are the consummate makers. We are made in God’s image because we have made, too: our creations may liken us to our myriad, respective gods, not just our faces.

Helen Frankenthaler’s colors leap like Duke Ellington seasons that wear like adolescent sensuality. e.e. cummings reads like Depression-era steel, not only in color but in sharp, rusting, staccato edges. And Dvorak’s New World Symphony makes me sob, as it sounds wide expanses of a continent conquered and yet rings the hope that my own family clutched as they became American citizens.

E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

As a maker of subtle things myself, I feel entrusted with greater responsibility than ever before, as the beauty I attempt to draw may provide the same safe harbor that I now seek from others. May my drawings distract and engage others as crowded museums envelop and shelter me. For, in the moment the viewer forgets self and Social Security in my own little corner of earth, and I lose sense of time and tax reform in another’s object or creation, we are one.

In The Monuments Men, Robert M. Edsel includes words written by Paul Sachs, then-associate director of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, regarding the protection of art and culture from the devastation of World War II: 

“ … When the petty and the trivial fall way and we are face to face with final and lasting values, we … must summon to our defense all our intellectual and spiritual resources. We must guard jealously all we have inherited from a long past, all we are capable of creating in a trying present, and all we are determined to preserve in a foreseeable future. Art is the imperishable and dynamic expression of these aims. It is, and always has been, the visible evidence of the activity of free minds.”

E pluribus unum.