Art, beautifully and miraculously, has the ability to erase boundaries of space and time and replace them with a shared geography of the soul.
Pompeii. Simply reading that name ignites the imagination and causes us to conjure up images of what might have happened in 79 A.D. And, for those lucky enough to visit the ruined city on a day when it is not overfilled with too many tourists, it is possible to gently squint your eyes and look down the narrow streets or into the courtyard of a private home and imagine a vital, bustling town, filled with vendors, merchants and artists plying their trades, with families at dinner and children at play.
One can have that same experience, an almost tangible sensation of sharing the past, of occupying the same spaces as some of our ancestors, walking through the well-preserved ruins of Ostia Antica, once the ancient port city for Rome. Both Pompeii and Ostia offer vivid, unmistakable reminders of the Romans’ creative energy and their commitment to infuse art into and throughout their public and personal lives.
“A work of art is above all an adventure of the mind.”
One beautiful confirmation of that commitment is the remarkable juxtaposition of Ostia’s main theatre, located directly in front of a vast square whose center is occupied by the ruins of a temple to Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain and agriculture. And you guessed correctly, the name of the goddess provides the etymological root of the word “cereal.”
“Ceres + grain = cereal. Art and agriculture on the same public square.” One can imagine the conversations of the architects and city leaders as they debated the site for the theatre, their ultimate decision perhaps rooted in an innate understanding of the power and, yes, the drama of the setting they selected. Almost 2,000 years later, the aptness of that choice is readily apparent. Seated in the stone risers of the half-moon theatre, today one can watch performances and hear concerts viewed against the backdrop of the temple to Ceres. To hear Italian arias floating from the stage framed by the columned ruins in the background, will make your heart soar. The setting provides a visible and visceral affirmation of Willa Cather’s comment, “Religion and art spring from the same root and are close kin.”
The German theologian Friedrich Busch puts it even more precisely. “Good art is a form of prayer. It is a way to say what is not sayable.” Where does it come from, our human instinct and need to create, to express through art that which might otherwise be inexpressible? When did the need emerge? In the spring of 1999, I read a fascinating article in the New York Times. It described the extraordinary response that archaeologists and anthropologists had in the mid-19th century when they uncovered the graves of Neanderthals and found that they had been buried with flowers … big red flowers. What was their purpose? What was their intent? We may never know what they were trying to express, but American scholar Thomas Cahill suggests that their actions represent one of those transforming moments when earlier species began to become more fully human, when they began to express themselves through language and symbols.
While they may not have formulated the concepts, I suspect that those Neanderthals stumbled into something essential about the nature of art: That art not only reflects an increased self-awareness, but also that the very act of experiencing art creates a more meaningful sense of self and a deeper awareness of the physical world around us … and the emotional worlds within us. To me, those big red flowers suggest that our evolutionary relatives had an appreciation for beauty and a longing to preserve some element of that beauty for as long as they possibly could, even into a future that was totally unknowable to them.
In fact, one of the wonderful powers of art is its ability to transcend boundaries and to link generations deeply and meaningfully, binding the past to the present in ways that are frequently unpredictable. Most of the choral students at N.C. State University who sing a Renaissance motet or a 19th-century chanson have never visited a European cathedral or walked through the countryside of France. When N.C. State’s University Theatre students perform “Amadeus” and “Macbeth”, they have no personal experience of 18th-century Vienna or of Shakespeare’s England. When the crafts students learn to use their hands to throw a pot or turn a bowl, most of them have no memory of great-grandparents who may well have done the same. But through art, those connections do exist. In ways that are often imperceptible and occasionally mysterious, we brush up against the cultural heritage of those who came before us and we are enriched and enlarged. And when we fully embrace and explore those experiences, sometimes we are transformed.
Art, beautifully and miraculously, has the ability to erase boundaries of space and time and replace them with a shared geography of the soul. As Marcel Proust wrote, “Thanks to art, instead of seeing a single world, our own, we see it multiply until we have before us as many worlds as there are original artists.” Today we understand the significant importance of the arts in the lives of our families and our communities. We know that the arts speak to our deepest and most ancient longings: To understand who we are and why we are … and to explore and wrestle with those questions, both privately and publicly. Art is about hope. It is about joy and celebration. It is about preserving those things that are beautiful and meaningful into a future that we cannot predict, but whose dimensions we can help to shape.
By two millennia, the builders in Ostia anticipated John Ruskin’s aphorism that “All architecture proposes an effect on the human mind, not merely a service to the human frame.”
Generations of students at N.C. State and universities around the country know that their involvement in theatre, music, dance and the visual arts has deepened their self-awareness, prepared them to take risks and allowed (no, required!) them to think and act creatively. Through their engagement in the arts, they have found that their personal, social and professional frames of reference have expanded dramatically, frequently in unconventional and unexpected ways, allowing them to envision possibilities and connections that otherwise might simply have been overlooked or unimagined. They have experienced the truth of Thomas Merton’s wonderful observation that, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
Whether walking along the stone cobbled streets of Ostia Antica, where at every turn you encounter vivid reminders of the artistry and craftsmanship of its citizens, or attending an arts performance or exhibition in your own hometown, we are all elevated and enriched by those architects, builders and creators who understand that “art is above all an adventure of the mind.”
N. Alexander Miller III is associate vice chancellor, ARTS N.C. State, and may be reached via email at email@example.com.