The Wonderful Ache of Beauty (Why We Need Art)

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.
–Helen Keller

I was just minding my own business. It was an ordinary Tuesday morning. Then I watched this. And everything changed.

Ache of Beauty Photo
Photo Credit: Guillermo Salinas via Compfight cc

I’ve heard that song before, heard those words before, even seen the original artists sing it live. But there was something about this time, that song sung that way, that left me undone. It made me realize how much I had been rushing.

The song caught me off guard and nearly brought me to tears. I wasn’t expecting that, which is a problem. We tend to the beautiful things in life as privileges, indulgences. But what if they were anything but that?

What if art was essential?

Recently on the The Walking Dead, a character found a priceless Caravaggio painting abandoned on the street, as if it were trash. “It doesn’t have a place anymore,” he lamented. “Art isn’t about survival. It’s about transcendence. Being more than animals, rising above.”

“We can’t do that anymore?” the young Beth asked.

“I don’t know.”

And the question just lingered, unresolved till the end of the episode.

Art arrests us

It’s an important consideration: Is there any room in this world, in our lives, for beauty? Or have we maximized every moment, scheduling and programming ourselves down to the last drop?

There is something powerful about art, something that captures our attention and causes us to stop in our tracks. This is why I love music and travel and long walks in October. These activities are all so beautifully inconvenient and inefficient.

Maybe the best moments in our lives aren’t meant to be so cut and dried. Maybe the mess is beautiful.

Have you ever been swept up in a song or taken in by the beauty of the outdoors?

Has someone you love captured your heart at a certain point, and it felt like they wouldn’t let go?

Do you remember what that felt like?

My guess is, in a word, you felt… alive. There was maybe even an ache to it.

Art reminds us of our humanity

“I remember that it hurt, looking at her,” I heard a lovesick boy say in a movie once. Maybe love’s like that. Maybe beauty was meant to arrest us. But, as C.S. Lewis wrote, maybe that was just the beginning:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing…

For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Art, it seems, is a reminder of who we really are, or perhaps who we ought to be. And life, I think, is what we find when we slow down and allow the beauty to envelop us. When we embrace what is right in front of us and believe it’s worth our attention.

But in order to do this, in order to find the life we all want, we must be stopped, thwarted from our petty pursuits and led down a nobler path.

There is something inspiring about art, something invigorating in a piece of music that so perfectly slays you. We all want to be found in those moments that steal us away from the urgent and allow us to get lost in the so-very-neglected-but-important.

These moments, though, don’t just happen. We have to invite them. We have to make room for them, even if it’s only for three minutes while watching a video on YouTube. In the end, they’re worth whatever sacrifices we have to make.

Have you ever experienced art that made you ache? Share in the comments.