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Art, Beauty, and Experience in Paris

Originally published Thursday, 23 April 2015.

I don't take a photo of her. I walk by, my eyes riveted. On a tour of the Louvre with my family, I see her form first, and I try to memorize it. She is positioned just on the right, when one enters the first room of statues, off the museum's entry way.

She leans, Greek or Roman white marble, one arm straight beneath her, hand relaxed on the floor. She props herself up, casually, purposefully. Unclothed. Confident. She is the beauty I remember most. She is the beauty that brought me to tears just upon looking at her for an instant.

The tour guide doesn't glance at her, ushering us to a larger, more prominently positioned statue in the center of the large hall. And he, this statue, is beautiful, too. But it isn't her.

I'm not able to go back and take a picture of her. And I never find out her name.

Beauty can do this to us--grab hold of our hearts and our minds, stirring us to behold both the thing of beauty and the more that it truly is.

The beauty of a work of art can forever change us; when we experience beauty, we are responding to more than just the object of beauty, itself.

I love the scenes in the movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty when the photojournalist Scott O'Connell, played by Sean Penn, waits to photograph the elusive snow leopard in the mountains of Afghanistan. He has trekked up into the mountains and hidden, quiet and focused, for weeks until he finally catches sight of it. When he sees it, while looking through his camera's monstrous zoom, he  pulls away and gazes at it outside the camera. And he hesitates.

Walter Mitty, played by Ben Stiller, sits next to him, watching.

Walter Mitty: When are you going to take it?

Sean O'Connell: Sometimes I don't. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don't like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.

Walter Mitty: Stay in it?

Sean O'Connell: Yeah. Right there. Right here.

I love that--not because it makes me feel better about not taking a photo of the statue--but because it speaks to how we experience beauty.

For how we experience beauty is unique to each one of us. Our experience--who we are in a certain moment--is our individual translation of the beauty we see or hear and feel. Who we are, what our life experience is and has been, is the lens through which we relate to the beauty itself. And Sean O'Connell, by not taking the photo in that moment, is saying that there are things that can detract--and distract us--from our experience of the beauty that could, otherwise, be ours to know.

Some beauty must be worked out, I think. It must be translated by our own hands, with our own minds--through the interpretation of our own hearts.

In graduate school one of my favorite classes was on this topic. The class was called Art and Experience. The tiny, eighty-year old professor who stood upright at the podium each week rocked my world. She taught how we can perceive glimpses of our own hearts, our psyche, through the awareness of one's perception of art.

While I am reading a piece of art--or beauty--I am also able to read myself. I can understand more of who I am and how I am through my awareness of how I am interpreting beauty, or a work of art. What I might consider beautiful might vary, depending on my life experience. How I view the world, how I view God, how I view myself, all feeds into how art, how beauty is personally experienced by me.

So, each time I experience beauty, or I read a work of art, I perceive it differently because I am different. Beauty, for me, is ever-evolving because I am ever-changing.

I love that.

In another museum in Paris, the Musée d'Orsay, Justin has the kids, in each room, consider which two painting are their favorites. I do the same, walking around, pausing, listening to my heart for what each painting is trying to say. I believe each sculpture, each painting, each song, each work of literature, each poem, each play speaks. The key is paying enough attention. What we hear it says will be different for each person.

The reading of art is, really, a reading of ourselves.

Four paintings make me pause more than others. There is Manet's "Rochefort's Escape", where I see a solitary rowboat, filled with people, with a ship far away, in the distance, in the middle of deep-blue sea. And then there is the family on the path in the field filled with flowers, in "Path Leading Through the Long Grass", by Renoir. In another room, there is Van Gogh's "Portrait of the Artist." Those eyes. Those swirls of blue. Finally, I study the couple in the bottom corner huddled together, in Van Gogh's "Starry Night over the Rone". It is black-blue night, with starlight shining down all around them and illuminating the dark water behind.

When we pay for a book in the gift shop, we see prints on the wall of the paintings we had just seen: Van Gogh's room, Degas' ballet dancers, the gardens interpreted by Monet. And I am struck by their lack of beauty. There is much missing in these translations, an absence, an interference in the translation of the beauty I had experienced moments before.

Something I love about sculpture and painting is the intimacy in which the art is crafted. The artist's own hands were what touched these mediums. There was a time and a place where these works were formed, both a part of and separate from the artist. And then, once completed, the works are completely separate and given up for the viewer now, to perceive, for themselves--whatever they are capable, in a certain moment, to experience and see.

In Dan Allender's book, Sabbath, he points to how God, on the seventh day, separated himself from his creation in order that it can be seen, enjoyed, experienced, by even Him. Like the miracle of a baby just born, out of darkness of the womb and into the light of day, creation comes forth from the releasing of the thing that was once made in secret.

Art becomes something else once it is released, once it is given up, once it is offered as beauty for others to step into and experience, in whatever way they want to or can.

We get to decide what is beautiful. God whispers to us, the Holy Spirit our translator: this, this is beauty I made, this is holy. Our hearts speak it to us, the language of beauty, the language of our hearts, the language of God.

The statue in the Louvre, the paintings in the Musée d'Orsay . . .  each work of art an opportunity for me to experience the holiness of God--not because they were deemed "works of art" by our culture. Anything is a work of art if it speaks to us the language of beauty and of God.

If God wants us to experience the beauty He made, I can only believe that we are each made to experience holiness, too. Might it be possible that we recognize God's glory and holiness through what He has made us to perceive as beautiful?

Might God use beauty to show who we really are and how we are, indeed, made? Beautiful? Holy? Works of art, too?

I still see her, that statue in the Louvre. No photograph is necessary; she is part of me now.

Because she is beautiful, and beauty is something my heart craves to know.

I think it does know.

And I think your heart knows it too.

*If we struggle to see today, what is beautiful, let us ask God to show us what is beautiful to Him--his daughter, walking around, the girl-woman He holds close and yet lets be separate from Himself, a work of art he wants to experience as we yearn to desire him.

This post was originally published at jenniferjcamp.com