Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Beauty Through the Cracks

In a recent conversation a friend mentioned that she had difficulty listening to a particular musician (someone whose music she liked and admired) because of the violence and generally destructive behavior that characterized his life. And I thought about that. It's hardly a new phenomenon. And while I understand the reaction to some extent, I don't think I agree with it.

It's a bit of a cliche, but artists are known for being selfish, self-destructive (and other-destructive) assholes. I don't know if I would go quite so far, but I suspect that some would even argue that selfishness and a massive ego are necessary preconditions to producing great art. And although they exist, it's unusual to find great artists who are also models of Christian grace and charity. And so the bottom line for me is that I can appreciate the art made by the asshole geniuses while recognizing that I wouldn't necessarily want to spend a lot of time with the artist.

Not that horrid behavior is ever justified, but I also find that I have great sympathy for artists who were fairly miserable human beings. The jazz pianist Bill Evans was a heroin addict who lied and cheated to keep his habit alive. He used to inject his wife, for God's sake, and not surprisingly she developed her own habit, which led to her suicide at a young age. At one point in the late '50s Evans was strung out, broke, and his wife had left him. The electricity and heat had been turned off in his apartment because he was unable to pay his bills. He was at rock bottom. And he went into the studio with no greater motivation than to earn some cash to keep his habit alive, sat down at the piano, and improvised for seven minutes while the tape rolled and ended up with something called "Peace Piece," one of the most moving, hymnlike, and transparently beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard. And I love him for that.

Who can understand this? Where does that come from? The nice, neat theological explanation is that it's common grace, and that God bestows his gifts on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. But the explanation that I prefer is that it's a miracle, a little shard of God's goodness and beauty that shines forth all the more starkly when surrounded by the muck and the mire.

I don't think I would have liked Bill Evans. I surely wouldn't have liked Miles Davis. Or Mozart. Or Gauguin. I don't excuse their often horrendous behavior. But they created great art. And I've never reached the point where the weight of their personal sins offsets the glory of their art. I might have felt differently if I was married to one of them. But it's all a matter of degrees anyway. Some are more broken than others, but we're all broken. The miracle is that incredible beauty shines forth from the cracks.


Anonymous said...

I have this image of God randomly sowing random seeds of vice and virtue, gifts and handicaps (I recognize the theological problems with that image, but I like it anyway). Then it's up to us to discover how to best develop and use the mix we have for our purpose in life. The gifted jerks should remind us that none of us is all good, that just because someone is good at one thing doesn't make them worth emulating in all things. In music and the arts, the list is endless, but partly because the greatly talented ones who developed their talents are so well known, while in other walks of life, there are probably just as many anonymous examples.

So, what's the point? The point is, I don't have to apologize for enjoying the music of Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Chet Baker, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, because I'm not expressing appreciation for their self-destructive lifestyles, but for their fully realized gifts. And, a word for nervous Christians: God loves them even more than I love their music.

Anonymous said...

thanks for this piece, it came at a good time to use as an illustration for a group study i'm leading about grace (using primarily yancey's 'what's so amazing about grace?') the rain and the sun certainly do fall on good and bad alike. thanks for your insight.

durham, nc