Friday, December 09, 2011

Beauty To Die For

What if they announced tomorrow that they were going to tear down the Eiffel Tower? What if you picked up the paper and learned that the Statue of Liberty was slated for demolition? How about the Sydney Opera House or the Taj Mahal or the Great Sphinx? What if you lived in Paris or New York or Sydney or Agra or Giza?

These images are details from the volcano paintings we made last week.

Last night I walked the dogs to Seattle Center where our iconic Space Needle resides. We went right up to the foot of the Needle, a building that is exactly as old as I am, a piece of architecture, a piece of art, a place that is so much a part of who we are in this great city that I am quite certain its impending demise would lead to rioting in the streets. So beloved is it, that it serves as a the symbol for both the Convention and Visitors Bureau and Occupy Seattle. As we strolled in the cold December air, I was secure in the knowledge that should such a threat arise, we would all stand together, shoulder to shoulder, old and young, black and white, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, arms locked, some of us ready to even die if it came to that. That is the power of art. That is the power of place. 

They're finally getting around to tearing down the buildings across the street from where I live to make way for a new 6-story office cube. The buildings are/were a nondescript hodge-podge of mostly empty store fronts, a strip of the city that few will miss. As I watched the hungry bucket of an enormous excavator rising and lowering, taking bites out of the debris, I realized that they'd just demolished the last of the going concerns on the block. Up until about a month ago it had been a video store. I know, what an anachronism, a thriving, independently-owned video store right in the heart of land. When we first moved into the neighborhood my wife and I, each time we walked past, speculated about how the poor guy was staying in business. Yes, he'd augmented his videos with a small selection of "movie theater" type food -- soda, chips, candy -- but it didn't seem like enough. One day my wife chatted him up and as a business woman herself, steered the conversation around to how he did it. 

"It's the porn," he answered. The porn? Isn't that what the internet is for? "These Amazon guys don't want to leave a digital track record." He then went on to relate how he'd been one of the first video stores in the city, thriving for decades in what was then an out-of-the-way place, supporting his family on the video boom that started in the 1980's and only recently petered out with the advent of more efficient ways to rent non-porn material. He knew his days were numbered even without the impending excavator, and he'd managed his finances well enough that his family wasn't going to starve, yet he found it crushing to think that this little dingy box of a place where he'd spent most of his adult life would soon be no more. Yesterday, I'm pretty sure I spotted him on the opposite curb watching the place where his life had once been.

There is nothing intellectual about our attachment to places or pieces of art or any other inanimate thing around which we've grown like a tree sometimes grows around a fence post. It's purely emotional. We know, always, that it's the people with whom we interact, and the things we do that are really important. We sometimes try to insist, like with art or architecture, that it's the intrinsic beauty, but you should have read some of the original reviews of the Space Needle: many, if not most, hoped this hideous monstrosity would be torn down at the end of the 1962 World's Fair for which it was built. No, beauty is something we ourselves create, through familiarity, through living, through the relationships we create with other people. Even a porn shop in a squat, square shack of a building that few others have even noticed, can possess enough beauty to bring a grown man to tears.

In the end, it's not the place, nor the artwork, but the process of creating beauty that makes it so vital that we might even be willing to die for it. That is the great truth about beauty: it does not exist until we create it, and it is through the act of creation, alone or in community, that it comes to have meaning that transcends the mere intellect.

Nearly five-year-old Violet has been coming to Woodland Park for more than her entire life, starting in utero when she would accompany her brother Elliott. She is now a member of the first class of students who will "graduate" from our new home in the Center of the Universe. A couple weeks ago Violet's mom Cheryl approached me after class, saying, "Violet has something she wants to tell you."

I waited as Violet hid behind her mother's legs. I figured it must be something very important because, after all, we've known one another too long for shyness. Violet wouldn't speak, so Cheryl spoke for her, "Violet wants you to know that she misses the old school." I looked at Violet and could see the tears about the crest over her lower lids.

By every objective measure, our new home is superior to the "old school," but we weren't using objective measures here. The old school's beauty took Violet's words away.

I answered Violet, "Me too."

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RainbowsWithinReach said...

Our rootedness, our belonging, our participation, our entrechment -- through ARTS, thru place, thru people...... they all weave together to make us who we are.

Thoughtful reflection here.

Glad to have stopped thru: for the color and the contemplation.

Debbie Clement

MOM #1 said...

I'm with Violet.

The artwork is simply breathtaking. I love it.

Dan said...

Beautiful post Tom.

Thank you for sharing.