All Over Creation: Let's Get Lost

Art can carry you to some wonderful places if you just don't think so much

Lost is best.

Not the wandering-in-the-woods-without-a-GPS-and-no-cell-reception kind or the how-do-we-get-off-the-island-watch-out-it's-the-Smoke-Monster kind. I mean the lost that happens when you've been carried far from your workaday world by a piece of art, when you suddenly find yourself in a place of beauty that feels more vivid and real than the reality you know.

I confess that I sometimes find it difficult to get that carried away by art. Part of that is occupational hazard; it's expected of the critic to deliver some take on whatever play, concert, or exhibition he's consumed, to regurgitate an astute analysis of form, function, content, context, and that requires keeping one's head, so to speak, in the game. When I'm at a show, at least part of my brain remains in processing mode, so that I'm not only absorbing sensations and information but also actively sifting through them for layers, patterns, meaning. I'll reflect on these things after the fact as well, but my exposure to the work is so brief – mere minutes for a painting, passing seconds for an actor's line or dancer's moves – that this sort of mental engagement with art helps it live in my memory.

But even when I'm not on the clock, I'll sometimes find my mind still anchored to the world outside the work. I'll be caught up in thinking about what I'm seeing instead of simply falling into it – and I believe I'm not alone in this. I suspect many of us, maybe most, find it tough to untether our brains when we face a work of art. It may be partly due to the way art is taught in school (or, increasingly, not taught in school), or it may be the reflex we've developed after a century of modernist art that willfully challenges its audiences to think, but whatever the case, contemporary culture has bred in us the notion of art as something we have to get. Art, we're taught, is embedded with hidden meanings, and it's up to us to root them out and decode them. If we unlock the puzzle, we're in the club, and who wants to be left out of the club? So we strain to figure it out.

But once in a while, you'll encounter a piece of music or a picture or a play and find your grip on all that intellectual effort loosening, leaving you adrift in that artwork's power. The other week, it happened to me as the choral program From the British Isles opened. Chris Oelkers powered up the University Presbyterian Church organ to a level that made it sound not just like the chosen instrument of the Almighty but like it was willing all of creation into being itself. Then the organ dropped out completely as the Conspirare Youth Choirs took up lines by William Blake: "And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England's mountains green?" The unaccompanied voices of those boys and girls, so high and clear and pure, imbued the query with an innocence and unstained faith that pierced the heart. And as they were joined by the 50-plus voices of the Conspirare Symphonic Choir's adult men, adding awesome depth and power, the glory of that sound transported me from my pew in Texas to the emerald fields and rolling pastures of England. And there I remained for much of the program, in the words of the great hymnist Charles Wesley, whose "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" was also sung that night, "lost in wonder, love, and praise."

It helped that I knew "Jerusalem" (who doesn't now, it being the hymn of choice for any Masterpiece Theatre production with a scene in a church); that meant I didn't need to gear my brain to follow an unknown melody and could relax into the performance. But just being familiar with a work isn't all there is to this kind of artistic experience. It's really about letting go – surrendering the need to think, to decipher, to get, and just allowing the work of art to wash over you, letting its currents of color and texture and sound and light pull you out of yourself. Disconnect the brain a little, and see if art can't take you someplace new.

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