When I was a self conscious college student, I spent way too much time discussing questions like, “What is art?”
I never really understood. I read classic literature, but I was the kid in the back of the class on “Anna Karenina” who couldn’t get past the mother walking out on her kid. I remember an hour long discussion of how Tolstoi used the symbol of the rowan tree in his work. I squirmed. I wiggled. I finally blurted out, “Oh, my God! It’s just a tree! He just put it in there because they were in a forest!”
I was not the best student at interpreting artistic metaphor.
I have tried to look at contemporary and abstract art. Honestly, most of it just looks to me as if a bunch of kids walked through spilled paint and did the happy dance on a canvas.
But last night I think I finally figure out what “art” is to me.
Last night Paul and I and some of old friends went to see a performance by Rhiannon Giddens. I have been listening to this woman’s music for the past nine or ten months. But seeing her live?
Oh. Dear Lord.
I finally know what art is.
Art reaches way way inside of you. It pokes you, not so gently, and it makes you look at yourself. Hard.
Ms. Giddens is, as far as I am concerned, the embodiment of the Goddess.
As I listened to the sound of indescribably gorgeous, rich voice, and as I watched her move with grace around the stage, I imagined myself describing her to my granddaughter, Ellie.
I have to tell you that Ellie already loves Rhiannon’s music. She comes into my house and chooses her music every day. It is usually either “Melanie” of Upstate Rubdown, “Allie” of Birds of Chicago, or “Annon” of “Rhiannon Giddens.”
The child knows good music when she hears it.
But last night, seeing Rhiannon Giddens on stage, moving, smiling, playing, singing, I kept trying to capture the words to describe the experience to Ellie.
“Rhiannon is….” I don’t want to say ‘beautiful’, although she surely is. I don’t want to reduce her to another lovely face. I don’t want Ellie to think that beauty is the standard to be most admired.
No. There are so many more substantial words to describe her, and to describe the meaning of “art”.
Art hits you hard. It rocks you.
Art doesn’t apologize.
It makes you look at your real self. It makes you want to be better than you were just a moment before.
Now I think that art makes you question yourself in the best ways. It challenges you to grow.
Rhiannon Giddens is an artist. Last night her music made me cry. It made me question my role in the life of my country and of the world.
This is what I will tell Ellie.
I admire Rhiannon Giddens and love her music because of the woman that she is.
She is powerful. She is strong. She doesn’t apologize for her views or her reactions. She is tall, and dark and loud and glorious. She sings like a sweet angel. She sings like an avenging angel.
She is my understanding of art. She’s my challenge going forward.
What a concert.
If by chance you do not know the music of this woman, you owe it to yourself to listen to her.