I have always felt that artists – of any form – can provoke, challenge, awaken, and excite us. They can make us uncomfortable, heighten our awareness, and invoke us to look within ourselves. With this belief firmly in place, I recently visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. MOMA is a world-renowned institution, with an expansive collection of priceless masterpieces, and a deep commitment to providing ever-changing exhibitions of pieces from other museums. During my most recent experience, I took some time to see the current exhibition, “Is Fashion Modern?” and then headed off to see the works of the Impressionists - Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and others.
As I walked through the collection, one artist in particular who really “struck” me was Paul Cézanne. Not being an art historian, words fail me in describing Cézanne’s artwork. But that day, at that time, he drew me into his world, his vision, and his artistry. I felt a joy, an energy, and an optimism from the vibrancy of his colors. His unique vantage point in his paintings challenged and awakened my own perspectives. I felt as though Cézanne was calling out to us to not just appreciate what we see around us, but to consider seeing it differently, through the eyes of another person.
That day,Cézanne’s artistry struck me, for sure, but what was even more impactful was the brief biography the museum had written – one that I am certain applies to many artists. Essentially it conveyed that for all the accolades Cézanne receives today, during his lifetime and particularly in his latter years, he was rebuffed. His work challenged the norm, questioned the artistic boundaries and standards of excellence of the time, and did so through bold and unapologetic color and energy. I felt empathy for Cézanne as I reflected upon his plight. The very fact that he remained true to his own artistic vision made me all the more appreciative of both the splendor of his work and of him as an artist.
The vast majority of us go about our daily lives “fitting in”. We understand the societal norms that define success, and we work to fit within them on well-worn paths with fewer risks and fairly clear outcomes.
Artists don’t have that luxury. They have an innate need to express their visions and their perspectives because they have the gifts of insight, of unique vantage points, of imagination, and of interpretation. Holding these qualities in would be disingenuousness and would likely create inner turmoil. Yet, expressing that which is not in the mainstream and not on the trodden path can beget looks, frowns, distancing, and, of course, harsh criticism and rejection.
An artist’s willingness to paint, or act, or write a song, or read poetry for others to experience is truly courageous. It requires one to open up, bare one’s soul with no control over how people will respond. While it may be stating the obvious, artists are some of the bravest people I know. It is because of that bravery that we have our music, our architecture, our understanding of the human condition through novels, plays, and poetry, our dance, and, of course, the artwork that surrounds us to fill our lives with meaning, joy, perspective, and emotion.