It’s an angry time in the world, but we aren’t fearful of or for the future. We’ll survive this as we’ve survived angry times in the past. And if history tells us anything, we’ll likely emerge from the darkest of days to find beauty delivered to us by the creative geniuses who seem to thrive in the shadows of despair.
We’re reminded here of the words of Orson Welles as Harry Lime in Graham Greene’s “The Third Man.”
“Don’t be so gloomy,” Welles said in the post-World War II piece of noir set in the ruins of Vienna. “After all, it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
We don’t see many cuckoo clocks in our immediate future, but a little touch of the Renaissance is possible.
We caught a glimpse of despair turned on its head on a recent visit to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. In two large galleries, the museum is showcasing the work of Howardena Pindell, an abstract artist who faced professional dismay and personal disaster amid the social upheaval of the late 1970s. She responded by creating some of the most meaningful work of her career. There’s the tiniest of detail in some places, proof of her mind racing to find the answers she needed to survive. And there are soaring works so alive their creation couldn’t be halted even to stretch the canvases on frames. Instead of wilting on the worst of days, she kept creating.
So, too, did the German Expressionists a century ago. Those artists faced some of the greatest horror man has ever inflicted upon other men — many of those creative geniuses were literally in the trenches, forced into the action as reluctant soldiers — and channeled it into work that today, in the relative peace and quiet of the VMFA, still demands attention and speaks of the time from which it sprang.
It’s easy to get depressed about the myopic, boorish behavior that seems so common in so many places today. We’re disturbed, for sure, as we all should be, but we aren’t despondent. Seeing the most recent class of Virginia Commonwealth University art students fan out around town with their sketch books brings a smile. Who knows what they see where we see the history that so often divides us, particularly along Monument Avenue. We’re certain someone in that group will produce work that will challenge us to think in new ways. There may be a cuckoo clock or two in those works, but there could be masterpieces awaiting, as well.