This fall I took an online class on the personal essay, never realizing how all consuming it would be. Between weekly readings, 3,500-word assignments, and a discussion board serving as our virtual classroom, I felt as if I was back in graduate school.
So I was relieved to finish up last week, eager to get back to my life. Two days later I flew to Philadelphia to visit my son Andrew and his fiancée, Kendall. On Saturday, we drove north of the city to the Woodmere Art Museum. Its exclusive focus is on artists from Philadelphia. None of us had heard of it before but were drawn to a special exhibit recently launched of the photographs of John Mosley (1907-1969). A photojournalist his entire career, he documented the Black community post-Great Migration. In more than 100 black-and-white unframed images, Mosley chronicled the positive, vibrant life of Blacks during this period of history: Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey, W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King; Langston Hughes; Joe Louis and Jesse Owens; the church, culture clubs, the YMCA, and Chicken Bone Beach in Atlantic City, to name a few.
On the heels of a decidedly strange political season and an even stranger outcome, where our country’s future is anything but certain, and the rules are being rewritten and roles redefined, I am suddenly grateful for art and its practitioners. Grateful that an entire army of creative people march to their own beat. Grateful that on any given day I can read an essay by Joan Didion, attend an exhibit by Haitian mixed media artist Charles Philippe Jean-Pierre, listen to K.D. Lang’s version of “Halleluiah” by Leonard Cohen, hear Billy Collins read his poems, and smile at how extraordinary it is to be alive.
I am grateful that artists care about truth and find infinite expressions for it. For Italo Calvino, writing connected him to a “collective enterprise.” Mary Gaitskill writes “to give form to things we can sense but not see.” Writers, according to Susan Sontag and many others, pay attention to the world. Vladimir Nabokov famously wrote: “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That . . . prism is the art of literature.” Art interprets life for us, giving us the rich texture of the most ordinary moments.
For my money and time, listening to an enduring piece of music, viewing the work of a visual artist, or opening a good book are not different versions of turning away from the events of the day. Getting “lost” in art—better, filling up on art—means glimpsing the very essence of what matters. Saul Bellow called it “opening life up down to the pit.” Artists, it turns out, are much less afraid of the truth than the politicians who spin it.