Art and the Abyss

At the core of every human being is a space of vulnerability. It is an open space and deep, sounding to the very source of us. As we grow from infanthood, as we begin to become conditioned by our culture, this vulnerable part of us becomes painful. Our conditioning steers us away from our vulnerability. Our conditioning makes our vulnerability foreign to us. This is what makes our vulnerability painful.

As we grow and become more aware of that pain and the pain becomes greater, ironically but logically, we turn to our culture to help us soothe the pain. And when we turn to our culture for help we are then further conditioned by it. So our culture makes our vulnerability foreign and painful to us, and then becomes our refuge from that pain, which, in turn, makes our vulnerability more foreign and painful to us, which, in turn, drives us back to our culture for further succor.

Each of these impulses stimulates the other until every one of us has built a protective shell of conditioning around our very vulnerable core. This shell is hollow because the vulnerability is still there and will always be. But the shell comforts us just the same. It protects us from our vulnerability. We are very sensitive creatures. We depend upon this protective shell. It makes life bearable.

We do not lose our vulnerability. Our vulnerability never leaves us. We cannot escape it. It is our essential self.

As we continue to grow so does our protective shell. But, regardless how old we get, or how big around the shell becomes, or how thick or tough its surface, it can still be broken open. That protective shell can be breached. And when this happens, when the shell cracks, or is punctured, or shattered, we are faced with the undeniable truth of ourselves: With our naked helpless vulnerability: With our essential self. These breachings come via different means for different people. Grief does it perhaps most powerfully and terribly and universally. Love does it. For some nature will do it. For others children, or danger, or pets, or sex, or God. For many, art.

When one truly experiences art one experiences a puncturing of this protective shell.

A peculiarity of art and what has made its definition contentious even since Greek times is that different people seem to see it in different things. And if so many people are calling so many different things art, many of which apparently contradict each other, how do you finally definitively define it? A thirteen-year-old girl will avow art to be in a pop song, while a fifty-year-old man will snicker at this. On the other hand, a fifty-year-old man might assert art to be in Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, while the thirteen-year-old girl will only yawn. Both experience art. Both are moved by what they see as art. And both believe in art completely. How is this paradox resolved? From the perspective of how our conditioning creates in us a protective shell the answer is not that difficult.

We each rest on that protective shell around our vulnerable core. Art, when it is experienced, punctures that shell. It shows to us our essential self, our core of vulnerability. The protective shell of the thirteen year old is punctured by the pop song. It opens up her protective shell. It reveals to her her vulnerability. When she listens to Tchaikovsky, however, her shell is not punctured. To the thirteen year old then the pop song is truly art, while Tchiakovsky is not. And she is not wrong. That pop song is art--For her; and Tchaikovsky is not art--For her. For the fifty year old the story is reversed. He hears the pop song and is unaffected. His protective shell remains intact; his hidden vulnerability remains hidden. Sit him before Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, however, and everything changes. The shell that protects him from his vulnerability breaks open; that vulnerability at his core comes flooding into his awareness; and he experiences his essential self. The symphony may bring the fifty year old to tears. It may be the most powerful manifestation of art in his life, but that does not change what it is for the thirteen-year-old girl. And for her it is something other than art.

Interestingly, that same thirteen-year-old girl will change as she grows, and what is art to her will change along with her. In her twenties it will probably be something different than the pop song. In her thirties it may be something unmusical altogether. In her forties it may be her children or grief. And in her fifties she may find her vulnerability opened up by Tchaikovsky. Not only this, but what moves a person, what a person's protective shell is susceptible to, can change from day to day, from mood to mood. Art is what stirs us, what awakens us to our vulnerability, to that vulnerability we protect ourselves from so tenaciously.

Art has a dual nature. First, it is relative. It changes from person to person, from age to age, from mood to mood, even from moment to moment. But, second, it is universal. For when art stirs us it stirs the part of us that does not change from human to human, the part of us that is most essentially human, the very source and core of what we are: Our vulnerability. What affects is the relative of art. What is affected is the universal of art. There is no truer definition of art then than to say that on this day in this moment this guitar solo or this opera or this juggler has opened up my protective shell and re-introduced to me my vulnerable core. As relative as this sounds, it is universally human. For whether that vulnerability rises as a sweetness, or a longing, or an exhilaration, we all recognize it and respond to it. We cannot help but do so. It is our very source.

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John Dishwasher

Art and the Abyss