Friday, November 06, 2015

Sunday, Art, and "Forever"

[Note: This article was prepared for middle schoolers who visit my class web site.]

What does this painting have to do with classes I teach?   The short answer is, we make stories, even history, from little pieces, and it takes our imagination to bring it to life.  That's one reason my middle school students have seen, for decades, this iconic pointillist painting on my bulletin board, on my necktie, on a coffee mug, on my class web site.  

More Alive
The artist George Seurat painted this "Sunday in the Park" on a canvas twelve feet wide, using tiny strokes of unmixed paint. Seurat's notion was that the viewer's eye would take in the dots' clashing colors, while the viewer's mind composed the peaceful scene. The result would "shimmer," be more alive to our eyes than if he had done all the mixing for us. 

Everything we do this year will reflect the technique of this painting. We will collect the pieces all jumbled together, and we will use our imaginations to compose something satisfying from them.

Musical Play Based on the Painting
The painting became important to me because of another work of art. The musical play Sunday in the Park with George (1984) by James Lapine, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, captures what it feels like for an artist to concentrate, to be "in the world of" a work of art. 

The play introduces us to the artist as he interacts with the real-life people in a real-life park. These people "do not belong together," clashing like the colors on the canvas, like Sondheim's dissonant clusters of notes; yet the story, the staging, and the music all come together at the end of Act One at the moment that the artist speaks the word "harmony." The artist composes the painting before our eyes, moving characters and even repositioning trees (and that monkey!) into the pleasing patterns of the painting. 

Art and "Forever" 
An odd thing happens in the theatre whenever the play reaches this climax: all over the room, people cry. My student Katie Friedgen, age fourteen, laughed through her tears, asking "Why am I doing this?" Letters to the New York Times from audience members asked the same question.  No one dies at the end of act one, the lovers already split up several scenes before, and the words of the stately, hymn-like song are as detached and cool and odd as the painting itself:
by the blue
purple yellow red water
on the green
purple yellow red grass.
Let us pass
through our perfect park...
That last word is one key to the audience's reaction. We cry at loss. That's why we sometimes cry at the best moments in life, knowing that they cannot last. The play, like the painting, brings everything together -- story, words, staging, costumes, music, ideas -- then holds up that ideal moment for one verse of a song, and is gone. The best things in life are like that, holidays are like that, seasons are like that, and so is life itself. 

Art and Faith 
Sondheim has no faith in any religion of the world, but this show is a religious statement. It expresses what's at the core of every religious person's belief: nothing in this world lasts, but what we do matters. We're all "just passing through," like the people in that painting on that perfect Sunday. Yet what we create (be it art, or understanding, or family) gives those passing moments meaning to others.

Novelist John Updike, who does accept the Christian creed, says that art for him is an act of worship, to honor with his creation what God has created. Sondheim says something like this in non-religious terms, when his artist sings:
"Pretty" isn't "beautiful"...
"Pretty" is what changes.
What the eye arranges
is what is beautiful...
I'm changing, you're changing:
I'll draw us now before we fade...
Translate "beautiful" as "eternal," and Sondheim will be speaking the same language as Updike.

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