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The Artist In This World

Pietà ' [pya-tä'], n.(It.; L. pietas, piety.) a representation in painting, sculpture, etc. of Mary, the mother, grieving over the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion.

This proper noun, Italian in today's use, Latin in origin, but international as a concept, carries a profound pictorial association. It was Michelangelo who perhaps personified the word's true meaning most perfectly and, obviously inspired by the idea, he repeatedly made it the object of his creativity. But many others artists throughout the ages have been drawn to the theme.

The dictionary definition seems strangely ambiguous, perhaps even self-contradictory. The word "piety," Webster tells us, refers to devotion to religious duties and practices, loyalty, or [obsolete meaning] pity. Surely the Pietà is one of the most archetypal of symbols; and just as surely it cannot be referring to the "devotion to religious duties and practices" of the persons depicted, the dead Jesus or his grieving mother. The bracketed obsolete meaning, pity, seems closest to the mark, but maybe there is a more accurate conceptualization involved here than any found in lexicons.

Is it not conceivable that artists of another age devised a form that would so perfectly and universally inspire compassion in the beholder that it became a standard symbol, recognized throughout the world? And taking this proposition one step further, has it not been one of the artist's principal missions to evoke compassion by way of his artistic medium? The answer seems self-evident: western churches have employed artists for centuries because of their rhetorical effectiveness. Compassion is a human trait we consider so desirable that we have charged our clergy to teach and instill it, and they, in turn, have engaged artists of all varieties, including visual, musical, and literary, to implement the message.

These semantic meanderings were motivated by a recent convocation of creative people who assembled to espouse a broad complex of views, convictions and beliefs. This particular group happened to be writers, but we have observed artists in other media adopt the same stance, comport themselves in like manner. The manner was strident, belligerent, ugly, lacking all semblance of the compassion one might have thought to be their hallmark.

Artists, by definition, are endowed with uncommon shares of sensitivity and imagination. Their temperament and training are such that they can, with astounding facility, "turn themselves on" in relating to stimuli, persons, ideas or emotions. Moreover, many of them are articulate as they are passionate, making them formidable spokespeople and champions of personalities and causes. (We use the word "artist" in the sense Joyce did in entitling his novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, not necessarily to designate the way a person makes a living but to identify an emotional type, although many of the individuals described here are, in fact, arts professionals.)

Here then were writers assembled to air attitudes about the quality of life in our time. It has often been said that no behavior is as disagreeable as that of the group. Any group. Individuals banding together seem to abandon their sense of propriety and good taste, often taking on a callousness explicable only by the perceived protective action of the crowd. It may be too much to expect that artists be exempt from the pattern, that their sensibilities preclude them from behaving like the stereotypical "ugly American."

The fact remains that, seeing these diverse and creative folks at meetings which provide them with a platform, one is struck by the militancy and narrowness so widely in evidence. In putting forth their credos, they seek to discredit; and in putting down others, they go for the jugular. It is a posture inconsistent with the humanism of those who have embraced as their calling the depiction of the human condition.

That is not to say that we expect uniformity of stance or opinion among the arts community, or that we would even regard such uniformity as desirable. As the world, through technology, has grown smaller, the options open to us in our arts and in our lives have grown larger than any prior age would have dared to dream. Nor must the artist invariably be associated with what his detractors so uncharitably call "do-gooders," "bleeding hearts," or "liberals." Just scan the cultural periodicals being published in this country alone and you will find the whole gamut of political persuasion in all its shades. It may be one of the fringe benefits of the untold anguish endured in our century that the world has become politicized. The old romantic notion, held especially by European middle and upper classes, that politics had no bearing on the arts is today, mercifully, unthinkable. In the world's democracies at least, we know that politics is a necessary ingredient in every aspect of our lives, the arts very much included.

But even with the vast panoply of divergent views, styles, tastes, and attitudes confronting us today, the things that unite us are still greater by far than the things that divide us. No matter where we live or what we have achieved, we are still subject to anger and to fear, to laughter and to mirth, to sorrow and to pain, to friendship and to love. For those are the great human common denominators, and in those the world has changed not one iota. Furthermore, that world still calls upon its artists for commentary on its humanity, waiting for the creators of all media to enlighten, to entertain, and to ennoble.

The danger, both for the world and for its artists, comes when the two get separated economically, socially, geographically, and (worst of all) spiritually; when the world subsists on, and awards its artists, mere lip service and tokenism; and when artists spin off from the lay world into an unreal and embittered isolation that all too often leads to what society-at-large perceives as a conspiratorial elitism.

Then do we witness artists rising to the foe, but the barricades they man are towards a world which, in reality or imagination, has chosen to slight, to negate, to ignore both artist and his art. It is an enmity and distrust which neither party can afford.

This is a wonderful time for the artist to listen once again to the world, to embrace his part in it with joy. Today the artist may-perhaps uniquely look at and listen to the world-at-large. Today more and more areas of the globe are discovering the true meaning of coexistence, of pluralism. Crushing, eradicating those who differ from us is no longer an inevitable imperative. If we have something to contribute, if we stand for things with honesty and reverence — rather than against things with militance and self-righteousness — then we need no longer cower silently before the higher and the mightier. Just as governments are slowly learning to accept and live with differing points-of-view, so must individuals. And artists are always better served when they act as individuals within the world, rather than as a union of hostile functionaries, embittered by, and estranged from, the world in which they live.

It is a century-and-a-half since Wordsworth lamented the world's being "too much with us," the us referring to the artistic temperament, the world to the humdrum dictates of society. At no time has the world needed its artists more than it does today, but they must choose to live and work within that world, not removed from it. And they must demonstrate, as did Michelangelo, that compassion consists neither of subject matter nor of artists' polemics, but of the profound emotion which they can engender in the beholder, the reader, and the listener.

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