What does it all mean?

From films to TV to exhibitions, the arts explore the big 'whys' of life.

The movie, "The Straight Story," an elderly man drives a lawn mower across two states in six weeks to make peace with his long-estranged brother. Along the way, he aids several people with his wisdom and confidence.

The lawn mower drive seems eccentric. Why not take a bus if he can't drive? But there is something about the journey that matters. He is on a search for meaning. At the end of the journey, his brother comes out on the porch, his eyes welling up with tears, looks at the tractor, and says, "Did you come all the way to see me on that?"

"I did, Lyle," is the simple reply. Now we know that the journey represents a sacrifice and a gift. The camera pans up to the sky, as it has several times through the film, symbolic perhaps of the Infinite.

"The Straight Story" illustrates that one of the functions of art is to reexamine fundamental truths and reveal the meaning of experience. But somehow, distracted by relativism and materialism, we've seemed to lose sight of that important function in the arts.

In movies like "The Straight Story," "The Winslow Boy," and a slew of other meaningful films, as well as various new plays, art exhibitions, and even TV shows, there is a search for meaning going on.

Much has been said about the current ironic attitude toward life and art. If everything is relative, then it's hip to be cynical, pessimistic, and even nihilistic. That's the so-called "post-modernist" position, spoken of so often in the press.

The ironic man stands on the sidelines, commenting condescendingly on the absurdity of others and of life. Think of movies like "Pulp Fiction," "Election," "The Whole Nine Yards," "Being John Malkovich"; TV comedies like "Seinfeld" and "Ally McBeal," and most TV ads ("one more product will make you happy"); controversial art exhibits featuring "specimen art" (a lump of meat covered with maggots, slices of cow in formaldehyde), like that at the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Art Museum; and the music often heard on MTV.

These expressions have something to say as legitimate criticism of American society, if taken as reflections of the culture. They certainly rub our faces in popular moral ambiguity, the dubious status of women, and the consumer posture of "use, abuse, discard." But what do they say about our purpose here on earth? About human dignity? About the meaning of our lives?

"Do we need aggressive art in this country that talks about [materialism]?" asks Catherine Amidon, director of exhibitions at Plymouth State College in Plymouth, N.H. "We do if it's understood. If it helps us get a handle on just how far we've gone in pursuit of money and objects. But we've been sticking our fingers into wall sockets for 100 years now, and how much more shocking can art do?"

Last year's "Sensation" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art did manage to create shock waves - but as Ms. Amidon implies, to what end?

Against this tide of relativism, irony, and cynicism, warmer currents are rising to the surface in the arts - the affirmation of meaning. And more and more artists and critics are beginning to talk and think about this sense of "meaning."

"Irony is a dead end," says actor-director Anthony Powell of the Denver Center Theatre Company. "The laughter turns to ashes in your mouth."

"What I've discerned is that the [religious impulse] was always there," says New York art critic Eleanor Heartney. "But even five years ago, it was still in the closet. Artists were reluctant to discuss that aspect of their art."

Julia Moore, director of exhibitions and artist services at the Indianapolis Art Center, says that in the past decade she has seen more visual artists interested in linking with specific religions, and more willing to acknowledge that link in their work. "Twenty years ago, [artists] had to be able to rationalize everything."

In a recent talk in Boulder, Colo., film critic Roger Ebert spoke of the cinema (the best movies) as a "sacrament of empathy."

The search for meaning in art explores regions left unexplored by lesser forms. These artists ask the great questions, such as "What is the purpose of human experience?" and then allow their art to reveal something new and unexpected.

Authentically meaningful art bears witness to a deeper hunger for significance in a world where no amount of greed or selfishness can address that hunger.

Sometimes the expression of meaning manifests as religious works of art. But in other works, there is no dogmatic agenda. What we see is the creative imagination grappling with forgiveness, compassion, virtue, justice - questions about the significance and worth of life. What does it mean to love unselfishly, to seek redemption from one's own darkness?

And whether or not one associates these values with religion per se, they are the province of "meaning." The ideas with which "meaningful" art (art full of meaning) is concerned are not monopolized by any one human endeavor. But we cannot really understand a great work of art unless we understand the deeper impulses behind it.

Movies: 'ultimacy' and 'intimacy'

James Wall, film critic of The Christian Century magazine, coined the expressions "ultimacy" and "intimacy" to describe humankind's need for committed communion with the divine and with each other and how these twin needs surface in film.

Dr. Wall says that a half-dozen or more mainstream films last year dealt with issues of redemption, reconciliation, or communion. Some were from surprising sources, like David Lynch, who is best known for strange, dark works like the film "Blue Velvet" and the TV drama "Twin Peaks." His recent movie "The Straight Story," is something of a blessed event. Others Wall mentions include "The Sixth Sense," "Magnolia," "The End of the Affair," "The Matrix," and "American Beauty."

"I think it's remarkable that you have both the responsive audience and creative artists who are making the [movies] we got last year," says Wall, who is a United Methodist minister.

"It was an incredibly great year - one of the best in a decade. A bunch of filmmakers who have gotten over having to be cynical and ironic, standing outside of life and commenting on it, have actually entered into the complexities and ambiguities ordinary people struggle with."

Television: 'Angel' and Bible stories

TV shows during the past few seasons, from "NYPD Blue" and "The X-Files" (which has always pursued questions of meaning) to "Third Watch" and "ER," have quite naturally put their characters in search of answers to the questions of being: Is there life after death? Is there a higher Being who loves us? What is the nature of justice?

Certain family shows, such as "Touched by an Angel" (CBS and syndicated), "Hope Island" (PAX), and "7th Heaven" (WB), over the past few years, have targeted overt religious themes.

Documentaries, series, and network films have explored the life of Jesus, the Patriarchs, Noah, the Bible, and the foundations of the world's major religions. And now the Sundance Channel is presenting the 10-film cycle of Krzysztof Kieslowski's "The Decalogue," based on the Ten Commandments (see story, page 18).

Prof. Jim Farrelly, director of film studies at the University of Dayton (Ohio), says, "Most of what happened in the '90s, in terms of [millennial fervor], was a turning back to some of the basic searches - the sense of 'Who am I? Am I prepared? Is there something beyond [death]?' I don't think we're seeing ourselves as institutionalized within a religion. I think we see ourselves making our own judgments - with a link to the main message from the Gospel."

On TV and in the movies, he says, young people love seeing a character who is working out his or her own salvation with a connection to church, but not in lock step with it.

"They like to identify with [characters] who can fight evil - be good, but not goody-goody," he says. "I watch 'Buffy [the Vampire Slayer]' and 'Angel' [both on the WB, Tuesdays] with my daughter. And [the character] Angel is interesting because he was absorbed by evil and is struggling to be good again and resisting all these temptations.... People identify with that."

Visual arts: issues of faith

An unprecedented number of exhibitions have opened up, or will open this year, at top-notch art museums across the country that look at issues of faith in art. Contemporary artists such as James Turrell, Lisa Bartolozzi, and Allan Wexler present a Protestant-Roman Catholic-Jewish spectrum and each is represented in a breakthrough art exhibition at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Conn. (the exhibition is "Faith: The Impact of Judeo-Christian Religion on Art at the Millennium," through May 29).

"It is much more acceptable now for artists to talk about how their religious backgrounds have influenced their work," art critic Heartney says. "It's more acceptable for artists to talk about it as a positive influence."

"From my perception, the art world turned its back on religion and overt spirituality for many years," says Harry Philbrick, the Aldrich's director and a co-curator of "Faith." "In the 1950s, religion underlay a lot of Abstract Expressionism - Judaism, Christianity, and, in some cases, mythology. The terms of discourse included the fact that artists were involved with expressing the sublime, the transcendent, the holy, and issues of morality in a clear way."

But with Pop, Op, Conceptualism, and Minimalism, religion was something people just didn't talk about in art, he says.

Other museums will look at cross-cultural expressions of the sacred. Look for talks on "Seeing God: Art and Ritual Around the World" at the Dallas Museum of Art through July 29; "Art and Soul" at the J.B. Speed Museum in Louisville, Ky.; and "Art of the Spirit: Understanding Each Other Through Art" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Fla. Also, special exhibitions over the next two years are planned at the Indianapolis Art Center, The Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, and SITE Santa Fe (N.M.).

Earle Coleman, a philosophy and religious studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, says that what we encounter in much contemporary art and in popular culture has been shallow - jokes, exercises in wit, verbal or visual sleight of hand. But great works of art have a dimension that takes discernment to see.

In his book "Creativity and Spirituality: Bonds Between Art and Religion," Dr. Coleman writes, "Van Gogh's painting of a peasant's shoes transmits something of the sincerity of honest labor. Tolstoy saw such art as religious, because it conveys the nobility of the artist's soul, raises questions about the meaning and value of life, and unites viewers in a feeling of brotherhood or love...."

Theater: great actors can't be cynical

Prize-winning playwright Horton Foote says that "love and respect for humanity" is what attracts him to new work. "A sense of a spiritual journey.... What gives certain characters more meaning? You have to have respect for them and empathy," he says, "and the sense that everyone has dignity somewhere, somehow."

Mr. Foote is well acquainted with the cynical in the theater. "I left New York at one point for 15 years because I felt the theater was just decadent," he says. Working in New York now, directing a play by his daughter, he has seen several remarkable productions that he has found deeply meaningful - humane, revelatory, focused on the human condition, and inspiring.

"I think we are at the end of post-modernism," concludes Anne Bogart, a New York-based director, playwright, and theorist, "and we are going to rediscover meaning.... As an artist, I went through a great period of deconstruction and great questioning of meaning and a skepticism about meaning and certainly an embracing of relativism. But now I think there is a search for meaning in new stories."

She is laboring to rediscover the "sacred space" of the stage. "... Great actors can't be cynical," she says. "An actor and director have to fall in love with the material. If you're not passionate and you're not engaged, the audience sees that and [the art] doesn't make any difference...."

Affirming Ms. Bogart's view, Jon Jory, the artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville (Ky.), says, "The actor's embodiment of the meaning [of a play, a scene, a line], which makes it heart-full, would seem to me to be the basic act of the theater. The great artists of any period are trying to find a delivery system for meanings that are crucial to them."

The great plays of theater history are made fresh by new actors and directors, the best of whom are as engaged with Shakespeare, Chekhov, and O'Neill as they are with David Mamet and Sam Shepard.

"It occurred to me just as the century and the millennium came to an end," says Robert Brustein, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., "that part of the darkness and pessimism and sometimes nihilism of post-modernism probably had something to do with an unconscious sense that the millennium was coming to an end - unconscious forebodings.

"And now that we are looking forward, and not backward, to a fresh start," Mr. Brustein says, "a fresh century, a fresh millennium, I have the feeling that that is going to affect the creative mind in a more positive way. We'll find the form of anecdotes in the theater that are more coherent and plot driven. The better playwrights are looking for wider significance - people like David Mamet and Arthur Miller...."

"There are nihilistic urban-madness plays out there that end up saying there is no meaning to anything," says Donovan Marley, artistic director of the Denver Center Theatre Company. "But I personally find them sophomoric ... the human is worthy of continuing to survive. And I believe there is more compassion in the world than not. And those are the values I seek in the work that we do."

Irony and cynicism still permeate pop and high cultures, so it may seem premature to ask if post-modernism is on its way out. But there is a distinct thaw in our thinking about art. If there is a trend toward greater spirituality in artistic expression, then we can expect to see more exhibitions like "Faith" and films of the stature of "The Straight Story."

"All the artists I have ever known are sincere...," Mr. Philbrick says. "In reality, they all want to do beautiful, spiritual, poetic work."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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