Monday, August 20, 2007

A Walk Through a Museum and a Walk Through the Park

Some weeks ago, I (finally) took advantage of the Philadelphia Art Museum's pay-what-you-wish policy on Sundays. So one sunny weekend, I strolled up the Ben Franklin Parkway and went right to the section that said "Europe 1850-1900." Impressionism. My favorite.

An hour or so later, when I was finished there, I made my way up the steps to the second level. On my right was "Europe 1500-1850"--perfect! On my left, "Europe 1100-1500." Even better. So, for the rest of the afternoon, I spent time with roods, altar panels, chant manuscripts, statues, etc. The set up at the art museum is breathtaking and inspiring.

The longer I stayed, however, and the more I thought about it, the scene began to depress me. I noticed that much of the collection there came from France. Were these treasures sold after the French Revolution? In any case, why are they here and not in a church? It should be said that it is a good and wonderful thing that the people of Philadelphia can walk down the street and relive Medieval Europe, but at what cultural price? One cannot help but wonder.

Fast forward a month or so to this past Saturday. After evening Mass at the cathedral, the cantor invited me to join her and her sister for dinner. We went to a restaurant near Rittenhouse Square, which happens to be one of my favorite parts of the city. Following dinner we strolled through the park.

It was really quiet.

Conversation soon revealed why (and this is old news; clearly I've been neglecting the local papers): Music is no longer allowed in the park. Now, in the warmer months of the year, Rittenhouse square is full of every manner of musician, and believe it or not, I loved to go there and hear the street musicians perform. This is real culture, real folk culture at that. It exists everywhere that has any artistic life to speak of. I remember fondly the musicians on the cobblestone streets in Vienna. Brass bands, accordion players--you name it. I have found that many street music performances are particularly re-vivifying, even if it's music that I wouldn't ordinarily listen to. More than once, such performances have broken the clouds of a grumpy mood.

In March, however, Philadelphia police arrested a man for performing in the park. Eventually, he was acquitted of the ridiculous charges. It remains unclear to me, however, what the enforcement of the law will be at this point. Many are charging that such ordinances violate the American Constitution (but that debate is beyond the purposes of this blog). Saturday's extreme quiet seems to suggest that, at the very least, musicians are afraid to set up shop in Rittenhouse Park.

What does all of this suggest? Are some in modern society determined to consign every last ounce of culture to sterile laboratories, where art cannot reach the majority of people and where artists will be tempted to go down aesthetic rabbit holes that would make their work incomprehensible? To be sure, this has already happened to a large extent, but putting the last nail in the coffin with local ordinances doesn't help matters, for every society needs culture. As I said a few days ago, beauty is necessary, and this quite certainly applies on our streets, where the humdrum of daily life often threatens to crush our spirits.

Now what in the world does any of this have to do with the liturgy? The answer is: Everything. The street musicians are much like our grandparents and great-grandparents, who had pianos in their houses, and most of the people therein could play them. It was natural for families to stand around at Christmas time, for instance, and sing the night away. Try that now; see how far you get. Over the years, one of my uncles would suggest from time to time that I lead the family in singing Christmas carols. That suggestion was usually met with stony glares that betrayed a discomfort somewhere between fear and annoyance. This is because the act of making music (or any other art) has practically vanished from normal, everyday life.

This cannot but affect the liturgies which we celebrate. The language of art in general is increasingly foreign to many. Others may scoff, but the progressives as they are called do have a point when they talk about relevance in worship. I do not agree with their proposed solutions, but their diagnosis is not unfounded. We are lacking an atmosphere of creativity. Most of the music that people hear, whether in church, in the car, or in concerts, is mass-produced. This mass production takes the place of genuine creativity which is so often missing from our modern world.

Am I suggesting that we should hire street musicians to sing the Mass? Should we commission the people that twist a bunch of metal and call it "sculpture" to do a new set of the Stations of the Cross? Of course not. Am I even saying that we should "dumb down" sacred music or sacred art? Not at all. All I'm saying is that we need an environment in which creativity and a love of the beautiful are cultivated. This environment must affect every aspect of life and every social class.

If we fail to do this, our work will already be doomed to the display cases of the 22nd century. And then many will wonder: Why are these masterpieces hidden away in a museum?

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