I am admittedly no expert in either fine art, nor orchestral music. In fact, I know almost nothing about either of them. But last week I had the opportunity to visit an exhibit of Cuban art at the Walker Art Center, and then the next day attend the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s final rehearsal for its performance of Mozart’s 39th Symphony. The two experiences could hardly have been more dissimilar.
The art exhibit was titled “Adios Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art since 1950.” One might expect that the art, being for the most part a response to and/or criticism of Castro’s godless totalitarian state, would refer back to conservative ideals. And by conservative ideals, I mean the 2000 or so year tradition of the West that began to crumble with the Enlightenment and then was swept briskly aside by the totalitarian fascist and communist regimes of the 20th century. But alas, although Cuban artists apparently railed against the “dreams and deceptions” of the communist regime, they certainly do not wish to go back, so to speak, to conservatism. What is the modern alternative to godless, totalitarianism? Hard to say based on the art presented. But suffice it to say that whatever the alternative is, it ain’t pretty.
Although no art critic, I am human. Which puts me in a unique position to judge art. For only a human can judge art on the only basis for which art can ever be judged: its reflection of truth, beauty, and goodness. And while some of the pieces certainly shocked (the multi-piece depiction of a robot raping a woman comes to mind), and some had a certain voyeuristic enticement (we chuckled that one young lady twice watched a video of a muscular male being stripped naked), few attracted the senses, the heart, or the mind with a portrayal of truth, beauty, or goodness.
This contrasts sharply with my experience listening to the Mozart rehearsal with my five year old son. And although I do not have a musical bone in my body, I was deeply struck by the immense beauty of the orchestral piece. It was awe-inspiring to observe a whole orchestra working in unison to create such a powerful sound. Anyone with a soul could not help but be lifted spiritually sitting in that concert hall.
And maybe that is the biggest distinction between the Cuban art and the Mozart symphony. While it is true, as Flannery O’Connor reminded her readers often, that art must begin with the material, with real objects, people, and senses, it cannot end there. For man is both body and soul, matter and spirit. Denial of the spiritual leads to a cold, ugly, heartless materialism, embodied both in Fidel’s Cuba and the art criticising it. Acceptance of the spiritual is the first step on the way to beauty, goodness, and truth. But an important step it is; for though we are all captives, the Truth shall set us free.