Inaugural Aesthetics

There are times when I reflect on my vocation -- working at the crossroads where art and faith meet -- and wonder how it stacks up against other pressing human needs -- hunger, disease, the effects of war, migration, what have you.To be honest, I do work in the somewhat rarefied atmosphere of art -- and more often than not, "high art."But watching the inauguration yesterday I had something of an epiphany. The core of the program included high literary rhetoric -- President Obama's inaugural address -- poetry, and music in the form of Aretha Franklin singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and a John Williams composition, "Air and Simple Gifts," performed by the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, and others. Oh, and two long prayers, also marked by metaphor and the ancient tropes of rhetorical art.If an inauguration is a moment to set the tone of an administration -- a miniature "constitution" of meaning, the establishment of a posture or stance, then art is clearly needed to erect that foundation.Maybe I'm not working in such a rarefied field after all.Leaving the prayers aside for this post, I thought the Inaugural Address was longer on content and a tone of somber, humble conviction than on linguistic style, but I suppose that plainness of speech and a touch of cliche are themselves a staple of American political rhetoric.The poem, unfortunately, seemed a bit flat to me."What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance."I don't know of any such "beyond." I only know "through."Aretha: what's not to like?For me, though, the John Williams piece was close to perfection, incorporating the classic Shaker dancing song, "Simple Gifts."[youtube][/youtube]These are the original words of Elder Joseph Brackett.

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

We desperately need simplicity, to learn how to bow and bend. To know that simplicity and freedom are ultimately gifts that we cannot create but only receive -- and embody. When we do so, we can turn and turn and turn.

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John Updike, RIP

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