The Beauty of Art: It Reveals Our Humanity

Hello from my study,

It seems a bit more than ironic that has I have spent the last 5 days writing all day long, finishing a chapter for publication that I would need to write, but I do. My brain is fried with sentences about gender, chronicity, stigma, IBDs, CRC, hegemonic masculinity, and the list could go on. So I want to write about something more enjoyable, and perhaps as important as this just completed chapter. When I arrived at Dana College the fall of 1979, I was already a few years (or more) out of high school, and even though I had some life experience, I knew very little beyond the basic Three Rs of the educational process, and I am not sure I knew them nearly as well as I had believed. After my first semester, I found myself in the first of a three semester Humanities sequence (Hum 107) and in lectures about early Western Culture that changed my life. It was not only the content of those lectures that fascinated me, it was how the various professors who lectured us helped us synthesize the world of the past, but connect it to the thoughts and actions of our present. That is an incredibly difficult thing to accomplish, but it is a profoundly necessary thing if you are to create a carefully thinking, critically reflecting, and appropriately active citizen of the world in which they live. That is what this almost daily three semesters of humanities did for me.

Yet, as importantly, it exposed me to elements of our life that were not common place in my simple blue collar upbringing in NW Iowa. That is, in no way, to say the education or life I had was lacking for most of the basics, but things like painting, architecture, classical music, or philosophy were not a part of my upbringing. The program developed by Dr. John W. Nielsen, and supported by so many brilliant faculty members as well as the incredible Parnassus staff, provided an education that was literally rated 2nd in the country at one point. Yes, that is true. We were afforded access to a class, a series of classes, or a program that rivaled any Ivy League program in the United States. The title of the class was more than apropos. Humanities are essential if we are to be a society of civilized reasoning people. Those twenty Humanities points required every semester allowed us access to cultural opportunities that helped us see how our lectures occurred in real life. Again, that is synthesizing what you learn, but it also influence who you become and how you perceive the world around you.

What I remember is it was a rigorous class, and because of that rigor, some people treated it with a certain disdain, arguing they did not need to know those things. Little could be further from the truth. If you are going to do more than be an automaton, you need to be part of as well as be able to reflect and comprehend the world in which you live and work. The gift of being an advisee of both Drs. Nielsen and Jorgensen was their ability to both challenge and support you in that challenge at the same time. They taught me how to learn, not what to learn. It is something I work hard to achieve with my own students today. They probably epitomized and lived Luther’s law/gospel dialectic as well as anyone I have ever met. In addition, there were profoundly talented faculty like Jim Olson and Alan Brandes or Sid Kieger. My appreciate for art, music, and theatre was informed by their lectures and their classes. Alan Brandes was a prodigy and one of the most profoundly brilliant, and yet tormented souls, I have ever met. And yet, it was not only the faculty.

We had students around us who exhibited brilliance and talent beyond what most might believe would be at a small liberal arts college on the bluffs of the Missouri River. There was an incredible talented and brilliant student who pushed me in ways more important than I realized, both as I struggled with Greek and hope to retain more for my Brandes’s Music History class. She was more of a blessing than I ever realized for more reasons than I have fingers. There were the men on the floor of the Promethians, they were thinking, capable students, engaging and simultaneously supportive of this 24 year old freshmen trying to figure out his life. I remember getting to know one of our Danish exchange students, between my trip on interim and her, I believe I can trace a line to the fact that Anton was my exchange son last year. She was smart, personable and beautiful, but she taught us all so much more than she realizes. I remember studying in the library with another on my humanities packets regularly. I still have some of the notes we wrote back and forth as I have all those Humanities materials in my office yet.

Art is such a complex, but essential part of who we are. I tell my students that all art reflects the culture that creates it. This is simply the way art works. Our creative minds are influenced by what we see, hear, feel, imagine, or believe. When I teach my Bible as Literature course, one of the things I stress, besides that it is a literature course and not a religion course, it that the Bible is contextual. It was written by real people at a particular point in time, and they were influenced by the world around them. One of the most mind-blowing things for my students to see is a timeline of when things were written and what was happening in other places at the same time. It is again, teaching them to synthesize their world. It is something we need to do regularly, daily, thoughtfully. I think of some of the music I listened to as a high school/ early 20-something person. I remember my mother’s unfavorable attitude toward things like Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath, James Gang, or Led Zeppelin. I wonder what she would have done if I chosen to listen to Beethoven, Bach, Prokofiev, or sometime atonal like Bartok or Schoenberg? I think she would have been more worried, but it was my fellow student who pushed me to be able to identify things like Berlioz or the other classic B named composers with a sort of name that tune. More was done to create an appreciation than they ever knew.

When I went to Europe that January of 1981, it was the time of a new President, it was the time when after 444 days hostages were released from Iran. As I had walked through the crypts of St. Peter’s Basilica or viewed the Raphael paintings in the Vatican, my head and heart raced. I was living Art Through the Ages, the art history text used for so much of our class. Almost 35 years later I would do it again, but this time I would be the professor. It was amazing to me how the feelings of walking in Garmisch-Partenkirken some decades before would return as I walked in the snow of Kraków and spoke with students about the world they were experiencing that day. As Anton came to live with me in August of 2019, I could not help by think back to the Danish exchange students who attended Dana, or my German exchange student friend from high school. I also tell my students that after education, the best or most incredible way to spend your money is to study or travel abroad. It is a cultural, as well as profoundly personal, education. As you work to find your way around, as you take the time to learn to converse in another language, as you eat the food, or sit in a church and listen to the music, your life is changed. You cannot be the same person. Again, I remember when I went to Europe in Seminary and we listened to the incredible organ music of Holm Vogel, the East German, who played Bach’s organ concertos for us in the very church where Bach is buried. While the music was phenomenal, it paled when one realized the person playing it was blind from birth. To this day, I do not believe I have been so overcome with emotion by what I experienced. I remember sitting in the cathedral in Lübeck in Northern Germany and listening to the music of Dietrich Buxtehude, played in the very church where he had served as an organist. There is nothing that can prepare one for such an experience.

Luther once said, “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise.” I think it is true. And yet the architecture of Europe, of all of Europe, and certainly in Moscow, provides such an insight into the engineering ingenuity of humans. There was no rush to build things, but as that humanities class questioned in a unit essay once, just how did the architecture of the cathedrals reflect the view and reverence people had for God? Certainly, the astounding size, the detail, the geometry and physics involved is mind boggling. The incredible writing of those from Greek and Roman times to the authors of today, it is impossible to not reflect on the world about which they write. Today photography and the eye of the photographer astounds me. They can take the mundane and it is no longer that. Artistry from the kitchen to those who brew or create beverages, there is so much beauty in what we experience, if we will merely take the time to ponder and examine it.

This past month has been a time for me to reconnect as some of my blog posts have noted. That reconnection continues to various degrees, but I am grateful and blessed by each one who has offered that chance or accepted that invitation. I am who I am today because of each of you, and you have blessed me beyond measure. As I write this is it the 11th day of Christmas. This week brings Epiphany and Orthodox Christmas. Each of those events provide a time to again take stock in who we are and what we value. As I write this, here in America, the week will move us forward toward the next step in our tattered democracy. I do not write that with any sense of pleasure, and I am not sure where I currently stand in terms of hope. As one of my mentors from graduate school noted so accurately and aptly. Being a Democrat and practicing democracy are not the same things. The same can be said for Republicans. It really returns us to the idea that we are first and foremost Americans in a Constitutional Democracy. How we make that democracy work will always be at question, but making it work is what we have done for 244 years. It is my hope we can step back and ponder, believe that we are in this together and move forward and do it again. I am not naive and believe it will just happen, it will take every branch of our government, and it will take all of its citizens.

To those who have reached out anew this week: thank you. To my beautiful cousins, family, and friends from all times in my life, I am blessed to have you in my life. Blessed Epiphany. May the light enlighten us all.

Thank you as always for reading and blessings to each of you.

Michael

Published by thewritingprofessor55

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of and Professional and Technical Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric. We work closely to move students into a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write, or ponder through my words.

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