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Fine Art Collecting #3: Why? by Barbara McCauley

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Fine Art Collecting #3: Why?

In his poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats ends with these often-quoted lines: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” I was an English major in college and for many years after, when others would quote these lines, I would nod wisely in agreement as if I understood, but I really just wanted to conceal my total incomprehension. I was caught in literalism, believing “truth” meant the factual kind, the kind I was supposed to tell all through my childhood, the kind for which George Washington and his cherry tree were always held up in virtuous light.

The Truth of Art

The “truth” of art is not this factual sort. Art does not need to depict the exactness of our world, which, in fact is a world we have ourselves created, to which we have all more or less agreed on in particular ways. Ours is a world created through the screens of our concepts, thoughts and languages. The word ‘tree’ no more touches the reality of the living creature it represents than does a single letter tell the story of language.

Art dives deeper into the Something within all reality, into the heart of the tree, so to speak, into that inner being we all truly are, the being most of us have covered over with our psychology, our histories and biographys, our networks of stories, ideas, events and emotions we cherish and tell and re-tell, believing all of this to be who we really are.

Well, we are not, and art’s truth is like a finger pointing our way into what we have hidden from, in ourselves and in the world itself. That is part of the mystery of art, and its enduring fascination. We hear Bach, and a yearning wells up. For what? We don’t know, but we recognize something. It stirs us. Michelangelo’s Pieta is at once sorrow, loss, resignation and sacrifice together with acceptance, glory, gift, and the breathtaking realization of human and divine love. Both stone and human artist are revealed. We see all that is to be seen, all that was in the artist’s mind and heart. It is this that is the pointing finger and it is pointing directly back into ourselves.

The Beauty of Art

The beauty of art is identical with its truth, a beauty that is not of the conventional sort, not necessarily pretty or even in the same colors we are accustomed to. It is a beauty that gives rise to that Something we all recognize but can’t quite put our finger on, which is precisely why it is beautiful. That it cannot be named, that it wriggles away at the slightest grasping at it, and yet remains right within reach, IS us and the world itself is its most poignant feature. We cannot HAVE it since it IS us. The beauty and the truth of that. Art comes the closest to expressing this, which is why we cannot, really cannot, live without art. Art comes down to us from earliest times: exquisite cave paintings, pottery, carvings made by what we consider the most primitive of peoples, all of us in this mystery that art penetrates and reveals.

But What About....?

Of course not everything that calls itself art is the real thing. Much trickery and cleverness abound: technical marvels, the latest fads, fakes and folly. But always and everywhere there are honest craftsmen and women who reach deep within themselves to touch the world we all rise from, without which none of us could even be. Most of them are totally unknown, just like the creators of the cave paintings were, but theirs is the art that will nurture us, remind us of who we are, and what this world is. This is the deepest art, the great art, as we call it. You may be interested in other kinds as well. Let’s look at some of these in the next article/s.