Last year, my brother and his wife took me to New York City for my birthday. I had so much fun--it was a fantastic experience. This was my first trip to NYC, and it was exactly like all the descriptions I had heard, and at the same time, not at all like what I had expected. Isn't that the joy of travel? To stand in a new place and really know, through your feet, what that place feels like? And coming from a small community like Bellingham, I was astounded by the efforts put into public places, buildings, and parks to create grand and beautiful spaces above and beyond mere function.
'Curiosity Killed the Cat' could be my family motto, and we love a passionate discussion. So naturally we assigned ourselves the task, before experiencing the Museum of Modern Art, to really look and carefully consider modern art. It is a rare privilege to visit a world-class museum, and one dedicated to the culture and support of modern art is rarer still. But our problem is that we just don't like much of modern art. And admitting that you don't like modern art is akin to admitting you don't like to read--it's such bad form. Starting from the top floor, we spent the day going through all the displays, reading the exhibit notes, dodging tour groups, and looking with a careful eye. Exhausted and verging on overload, we convened over a very late lunch and compared notes. After an energetic discussion, our conclusions were this: 1. The world would be a much poorer, and less lively place without modern art. 2. Modern art is an articulate expression of humans and their inner worlds in these current 20th and 21st centuries. 3. Modern art's very existence provides contrast, and therefore alternative culture and definitions, to all other art. 4. We still don't like it.
Art, and everything we create, fills our lives with ideas. From the earliest statues used in worship, through the Catholic Church's teaching murals, to today's political cartoons, art has been used to express every kind of human feeling and belief. In our 21st century culture we have come a long way from creating beautiful art merely to reflect our material wealth. But in my opinion, in our attempt to instill a sense of meaning and harsh, difficult, and gritty reality into art, we've instead created snarky, witty, political statements without any grace. Why is 'beauty' such a dirty word? When did the sublime in this world become so much less important than the bitter? Art is such a meaningful expression when the idea includes beauty--it makes us want to look again and again. MoMA was filled with art that is alive, powerful, really gritty and witty, yet (in my opinion) seriously missing much grace. And I missed it.
This last February, after holiday sales and the annual inventory census, I found myself standing in front of our art shelves feeling very sad. No matter what anybody's definition of beauty is, I had a hard time seeing much current art on our shelves. I know that there are thousands, if not millions of artists out there pouring their visions of grace, beauty, the human experience into a new language. And I want their work on our shelves. I want us to see, and be part of, this community of creativity. Luckily, the store buyers have been very tolerant and supportive, and have been searching for current works to add to our inventory. Bellingham is certainly not New York City. But what we are is a stubborn and thoughtful community vibrant with our own unique ideals. And one of the biggest, most delightful, and powerful perks of my job is finding books that support the creative language of Here, Us, Now. There is no better thrill than holding a new book full of bodacious visions, and wondering who will get to discover it. Maybe it will be you?