The Transformational Power of Everyday Things
I wrote the essay below ten years ago and the ideas in it have circled around my mind ever since. I knew this woman; she was a student of mine, she was lovely, and she was visibly suffering. She was suffering from the weight of age, the weight of being overweight, different; she suffered from the weight of living in her unbearably uncomfortable skin.
I suppose we all know and/or remember, that discomfort. The beauty of her story lies in the surprise ending, in the relief she found in Art, capital A. Or perhaps just B, for Beauty. I don’t know, I’m neither priest nor professor nor philosopher. I just know that in the most basic of ways, she found relief in looking at pictures on a wall.
Pictures on a wall. What does this have to do with study abroad? Or with lifelong learning? Well, nothing. And everything. I truly believe that when we travel, when we are away, outside of our usual routine, outside of our comfort zone, our senses are heightened; we notice things we might not notice at home, in our comfort zone. We are vulnerable, we are hypersensitive, and so we notice and sometimes we notice in very deep and striking ways. These are the propitious moments for learning. Isn’t that why we study abroad?
Pictures on a wall. What could be more ordinary that pictures on a wall? But something happened while looking at those pictures and she changed and she returned home better, quieter, more peaceful, and a little bit “healed from the beauty” of pictures on a wall. The idea compels me to write a series of little studies on the transformational power of everyday things.
N.B. In the link that follows this essay, you can see those famous Monet water lilies and visit the Musée de l’Orangerie. Or, just come to Paris and see them for yourself.
Healed By the Painting
A few weeks ago I ran across – and then lost the link to - a blog from a remarkable middle-aged woman writer. Filled with an overwhelming hyperawareness of her physical flaws and psychic troubles, agitated by group travel and an impending fiftieth birthday, she fled one afternoon to Paris’ Orangerie.
Standing in the middle of one of those famous elliptical rooms, surrounded by those swaths of swirling blues streaked in whites and pinks and strewn with rose waterlilies flowing together all so much like the rush of a fugue, it all took her breath away and left her all the better for it. In her words, she was, simply, « healed by the painting ».
I believe that art really did wash away some part of this woman’s pain. She taught me that art can heal. It can take away our pain ; it can repair and restore us. Art really can be so crushingly beautiful that it can snuff out even (especially ?) our psychic pains. Such a beautiful, comforting idea
I had never conceived of art in such a way. Instead, I have always understood art in reference to the word aesthetics. An anaesthetic makes us drowsy, so the opposite, things aesthetic, wake us up.
In that light, I suppose those waterlilies woke up a part of this woman that had been long long dormant. Their beauty reanimated, or relocated, something essential within her.
But I wonder, if art heals us, what else does art do for us? Is it for the soul ? The eyes ? The mind ? So I turn to you, Dear Reader, and ask why do you look at art ? Why do you study it, or surround yourself with it? Does it make you wonder ? Wander ? Run ? Fight or flight ? What does it do for you ? Does it heal you, too ?
| James Patrick Benn
Follow this link to see those famous water lilies: