November 5, 2012

Choose Art.

photo by Jill Shropshire

Seeing as how this is the day before the presidential election, I thought I’d take this opportunity to not write about it.

I do care very deeply about the state of this country, but I want to take a breath before election day. We’ve had almost a full year of election coverage—most of it about as eloquent as a Kardashian’s twitter message (#Yeezy2016!). That being said, this is an extremely important election and I desperately hope that everyone understands that. Vote, people. Vote.

So, last week, when it seemed mother nature, the Tea Party, and a stack of unpaid bills were delivering me a massive “Frankenfuck,” I noticed an online article about the 500th of the Sistine Chapel. I abandoned reading more articles about the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, and found myself on Wikipedia for over an hour researching this old mural. Yes, while millions are without power and Iran is bent on nuclear proliferation, I’m six weblinks deep in scholarly escapism.

I saw Michelangelo’s mural with my own eyes over a decade ago. I was on a college trip, an Italian bus tour that took us to Rome, Venice, Tuscany and the many T.G.I Fridays therein. It was an especially difficult trip for me for a variety of reasons. The first being that I was very overweight at the time. As a young girl, I’d imagined that my first trip to Italy would be filled with debauchery: sex with beautiful Italian men, shopping sprees in Rome, bottle upon bottle of red wine. My weight—or more my self-consciousness about it—made the sex fantasy virtually impossible. While my peers were strutting around in “I’m going to get laid on this trip or else” outfits, I was buried under pounds of shapeless black fabric. I dressed to go unnoticed. I was successful.

At least, I thought, I have those fabulous bottles of red wine to fall back on. I may be alone, but I will be fantastically drunk and alone.

My second night in Rome, however, I developed a severe rash that covered my entire body. My eyes were swollen shut, my lips were swollen open and under all that black fabric, I looked like a bloated corpse. A frantic call to my doctor revealed that my acne medication was reacting with the red wine. I could choose between a face like a pubescent 14-year-old boy or vino. The wine had to go.

The Roman shopping spree wasn’t a viable option unless I stuck to the tacky tourist shops with their glow-in-the-dark rosaries and 3D Virgin Marys. I wanted Prada. I got a Last Supper night light instead.

This ridiculous mopefest was my trip to Italy. A lifetime of expectations leading to a month of cheap pasta and depressing e-mails to friends. I’d found that I could eat and pray and love all I wanted to, but the facts of my life, the heaviness of all that I’d temporarily left stateside, had packed itself into my suitcase. I feared I’d return home with nothing to declare except my shitty attitude.

It was a trip to Vatican City that prevented that from happening, a trip I almost didn’t take. As we 20 or so students boarded the neon Euro-bus that morning, one of my peers approached me. This was a surprise, given that almost none of the other students had spoken to me the entire time. She reached her hand out. Dangling from her wrist were several digital cameras.

“Some of the other girls and I were wondering if you could take pictures of the Sistine Chapel for us,” she said. “We don’t really feel like going in, you know, with the lines and stuff.”

I paused before answering so that I could make her as uncomfortable as possible. I had been silenced for the entire trip. I was ready to unload.

“Are you kidding me? What else are you going to do all day? You’ve been given the opportunity to see one of the greatest works of art in existence, and you’d rather get another pitcher of Long Islands at the Red Lobster. You know why those lines are so long? Because people have been waiting their entire lives to see it. You’ve been waiting your whole life for a flat iron that doesn’t cause split ends. You want a picture? Picture this, you hot American mess.”

A tirade I regret. Not because it wasn’t true, but because the bus began pulling away at the very moment I started to unbutton my pants to give her the promised full moon photo op. I had to bang on the windows and run alongside it to get the driver’s attention. “Hurry up,” he said, opening the doors. “You’re making us late.”

By the time the bus arrived at the Vatican, my self-righteous anger was in full blossom. I hated Americans, buses, denim, cameras, slide shows, travel agents and everyone over the age of one. I considered skipping the tour myself—maybe finding an internet cafe so that I could spread some of my joylessness across continents. I knew, though, that I was being watched by the camera girls. I forced a smile and got in the very long line.

After taking two Renaissance art history classes, I knew every detail of the Sistine Chapel mural. I knew the history of it, the chemistry of the paint and fresco, the political maneuvers it took to get it done and the controversy that the naked human forms inspired. I’d studied it for an entire year, and had become almost immune to the highlighted folio images in my very expensive textbooks. There was also the noise level in the chapel—a football stadium’s worth of crying children and angry mothers and flash-happy fathers. After spending a minute in the chapel, I slowly shuffled to the exit door. Another disappointment.

It’s a good thing those lines move so slowly. As I waited for a mother to wrangle her screaming child into a stroller, I looked up at the Sistine ceiling one last time. Though the art books were a close approximation of Michelangelo’s work, the real thing gives you a technicolor buzz. It wraps you up and tucks you in. This isn’t a painting hanging on the wall of a museum that casually glides by. It is not precious. It is not Instagramable.

The Sistine Chapel is a 360 degree experience that demands all of your attention. You have no choice but to give in.

I’ve thought about this experience a lot over the past few months. As the people I know struggle with finances, as the politicians pin American flags to their lapels, as war and famine and environmental devastation leave so many without home and hearth, there is art. As civilizations collapse and re-build, as the iPad gets smaller and smaller, as we grow our food organically and chemically, the Sistine Chapel remains. Throughout time people have traveled thousands of miles to see it. And even if they are there only to unzip their fanny packs and snap a few pictures, they are there. Approximately 10,000 people visit the Sistine Chapel each day. Few websites, even though they are easy to access, pull in those kinds of numbers. Humans may be getting stupider, but their desire to be moved, to experience grace and artistic expression at its most luminous, is holding steady.

Art has always had this ability to burst through walls, to transcend the horrors and banalities of our daily lives. It’s why religions depend on it so heavily—the icons and statues and tapestries. You may not believe in God, but you believe there is some divine force that created the way light moves through a stain glass window. I believe in Shiva and Shakti and Kali and ghosts and omens because some artist took me there, made me believe. Politicians are all art, badly ponced up and somber, but they use their images to speak to us. For some, that’s all they have.

No matter what happens tomorrow, one side will be disappointed.

One side will believe that our country is being thrown into jeopardy—that our rights and beliefs will be stripped from us. We are people of our time and place, and we can’t avoid the current realities. I certainly can’t. If my trip to Italy proved anything, it’s that I’ll hang on to reality just to spite myself. I’m trying to stop that. I’m mining for beauty amidst the rubble of history. In spite of the human messes we’ve made, we were blessed with the sorcery of artistic transformation.

Vote. Then see something beautiful: a mountain, a painting, May Oliver’s poems, your own child’s face. Turn off your TV. For Shiva’s sake, refrain from tweeting. Go to bed. Stay sane and hopeful. Namaste.


Editor: Brianna Bemel

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