Art? Why?

Yesterday, while the 12-year-old girls swam in Greensboro’s perfectly clear Lake Caspian, I read on the beach, just me and a few gulls, a pair of kayakers pushing off. An older woman wandered down and waded into the water and said only kids could swim in that water, and then left, too. The girls had swam out and were experimenting with laughing underwater.

Later, we went to Bread and Puppet’s outdoor theater, sprawled in the hot sun. Coming home, the girls swam again, while I eavesdropped on a pleasant conversation between our former pediatrician, his wife, and friends.

I kept thinking, What does art matter, anyway?, all this barefoot and Blundstone-shod performance in the field? What does poetry, fiction, song, mean, anyway? The more I thought, I wondered if my question was wrong, if the answer lay in who was listening, like myself listening to those 12-year-old girls. Maybe art is like that a cappella hymn, voices raised in harmony and confidence, to the variated audience, the shape of the earth, the enormous pine trees, and all that sky, blue and shifting with clouds, over field and forest, highways and water, on and on, and on.

Maybe my question, like a koan, holds the answer.

A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.

– Leonardo da Vinci


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