The Efficacy of “No”ELIZABETH SCALIA
A few years ago, a neighbor and I were wending our way through a small gallery featuring the work of local artists, when we were stopped in our tracks by a large canvas, or board, from which hung a dozen one-gallon freezer bags containing colorful liquids purporting to be health and beauty products: shampoo, conditioner, feminine hygiene stuffs.
"Wait," I said. "How do you know that's what the artist means? Maybe this is saying that women are just bags of chemicals, and transparent and shallow, to boot!"
"Oh, be serious," she said, thinking I was not. "This speaks to me! It says we need to love ourselves and accept ourselves as we are! And it says that we are vibrant, like all the colors in the rainbow!"
"No, come on," I said, "This seems like something an over-praised 14 year-old would show at the junior high. It screams, "Look, Mom, I'm an artist!"
My neighbor moaned audibly and began to move away. For her sake, I resisted the urge to suggest the display be renamed "Huffer's Delight," with an accompanying warning that whiffing tired feminist tropes could be as brain-deadening as inhaling Reddi-Wip.
He may have a point. Nothing quite so humbles as a tumble, and humility is often the deep place where creativity resides. When a successful artist or writer becomes so insulated from criticism that he never comprehends a failure, or when he has gone a decade or two without hearing the word "no" spoken in his direction, he has no friction, thus no traction; things become too easy. You hear an abundance of "yes" and very little "no," and before you know it, you have nothing to say and no driving need to say it, so you coast on what you've done before. Think about it; what was the last great Steven Spielberg film? When was the last time Billy Joel or Stevie Wonder shouted out a tune you just couldn't get out of your head?
The anonymous artisans who created that otherworldly space were not speaking to a passing moment, but to Eternity. Unlike our modern artists, whose every lazy smear or digital sample is met with an emphatic gush of "yes" in a permissive era, these people lived in a difficult society of classes and constraints – civic and church-minded "noes," where instincts and desires were rarely acted upon. Their energies were instead subsumed into art and their skills – their obedience to the disciplines of craft and their mastery of media – were such that half a millennium later their work is still alive, still communicating from age to awestruck age.
Art needn't be eternal, but shouldn't it speak to more than passing trends? If it is not seeking to transcend shouldn't it at least transport? I once spent ninety transfixed minutes seated before Jackson Pollock's Lavender Mist, quite mesmerized. By comparison, the bags of shampoo said their piece in mere seconds, and the rest was silence. A gimmick short on concept and shorter on craft, the display was unable to say, "Behold, something greater than me. Or you."
That brings us, again, to humility. If you believe in something greater than yourself, however obliquely, you are always a bit of a beggar, which is not a bad thing in creation. It keeps you hungry, and reaching out.
Elizabeth Scalia. "The Efficacy of "No"." On the Square (May 17, 2011).
This article is reprinted with permission from First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life.
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Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos, where she also blogs as The Anchoress, and a contributing writer to First Things. She is a former contributor to Inside Catholic, and has been published in a wide variety of Catholic print publications and online political venues. Her book, Care of the Dying with the Help of Your Catholic Faith is published by Our Sunday Visitor. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
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