Home | Essays List

Gracefulness (The Beeped, The Mad, and the Ugly)


Let’s bring back the Blue Laws, where everything was closed on Sunday. No supermarkets open. No Wal-Mart. No Blockbuster. And while we’re at it, let’s disable all message machines and call-forwarding too. All beeping of pagers would be banned. If we can’t pass such a law, I think there’s a bomb that can emit something called an electromagnetic pulse, knocking out all communications. Maybe we shouldn’t wipe out all communications; phoning in for a pizza is important. But surely, if we can put a man on the moon, we can develop a bomb whose electromagnetic pulse selectively targets message machines, pagers, and beepers — without hurting people. With that, we might return to some grace in living and peace of soul.

Ah, gracefulness. Imagine such a situation! Picture sitting around with no movie to throw on nor shopping to do. No chance of “oops, there’s my beeper.” We’d be thrown back on our own being. Having neutralized the hectic “image is everything” world, we would have a chance to go quietly and slowly inside ourselves and others. The current herky-jerky world is really rather ugly in its breathless frenzy. We could use some beauty. Slowing down and expanding our sense of time would be more ballet-like, more graceful.

Okay, so this scenario is not terribly likely, at least not in the foreseeable future. But what about art stepping in to create some oases of grace?

In Confucian times the calling of the artist was to look at the world deeply enough to see some of its essence. The artist stilled himself, to see beneath the surface of the immediate sensory world. Beyond the tree bark or storm, was that place where all things fit together, even if somewhat raucously. Nature essentially was getting along with itself. Cyclone and spring rain, landslide and old tree -- all fit together in interdependency, all “belonged”. The physical and mental storms were illusory in the sense that they were a small part of the harmony of the whole.

This sense of harmony was not exactly apparent, to say the least. Then, as today, the hard work of living submerged quite easily any sense of graceful serenity. Tilling fields, raising families, rebuilding the home smashed in a landslide took up much of the time. Artists, being freed from the grittiness of everyday work, were given the responsibility of looking unremittingly at the world, discovering the essence of its nature, and then making art which gave these distilled observations to the viewer. The distillation from fleeting experiences revealed the vision that humans were parts of a whole. This view announces a kind of macro environmentalism where seemingly contentious parts of the earth do belong together. At bottom, all parts of existence were imperturbable in their belonging to a whole. Nonchalant and graceful -- what a way to be!
And today? Could artists do the same as artists of Confucian times? Looking deeper than the political, deeper than image, deeper than superficial concerns of self? Could some artists then make art that would be a distillation, a powerful microcosm of the essential ground of existence?

Sunday’s shuttered shops will not return. Where they exist, as in Germany, the economy suffers in comparison with neighboring countries. And countries that maintain traditions of slowness, such as the one hour haircut in Japan, also suffer economically. For all the clamoring about how bad the edginess of globalization is, it is unlikely that people want their standard of living to drop a notch or two. So the quiet of the Sunday Blue Laws is not likely to return. But the frantic and frenetic pace of our on-demand society cries out for some relief. Life’s too jumpy. Let us be free of email, messaging, traffic jams, juiced up movies and concerts — at least once in a while. How about a little gracefulness. How about more art that offers tranquility.

That artists have social responsibility these days is accepted; many works reflect social issues. Making works that provide moments of interior grace might become a critical issue in these whap-frazzled times.

©2000 Robert Stanley