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Art as a Tool

March 17, 2014

In a new book, “The News: a user’s manual,” Alain de Botton organizes his discussion around six broad headings: Politics, World News, Economics, Celebrity, Disaster, and Consumption. Under Consumption, he discusses dining, travel, technology, but also culture.

And under Culture, he discusses art (to include literature, music, film, theater, and the visual arts). He proposes that a journalist should not call a work a “must-see” or “masterpiece” without a well-reasoned thesis about the purpose of art. And he proposes an “explicitly therapeutic theory of art.”

He writes: “Art is a tool to help us with a number of psychological frailties which we would otherwise have trouble handling: our inability to understand ourselves, to laugh sagely at our faults, to empathize with and forgive others, to accept the inevitability of suffering without falling prey to a sense of persecution, to remain tolerably hopeful, to appreciate the beauty of the everyday and to prepare adequately for death.”

This is not too much to expect from our artistic pursuits, either as creators or “consumers.” What we term “art” is the result of urges not fully comprehended but followed nonetheless, and they are part of our explorations of what it means to be alive. It is difficult for us merely to be alive; we seem to require “meaning,” at least once we make it past the age of five.

But Joseph Campbell took exception, saying “that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that … we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

Virginia Castro, whose abstract paintings are on display at the library, might agree. She says: “When I create art, I feel whole and at peace. I come more and more into being who I was created to be. My intent is to simply let whatever images need to flow through me to flow through me.”

Virginia uses acrylic paints, blending her own colors from the primary colors, and works on wet, raw, unsealed cotton canvas. Sometimes the paint stains the canvas, giving an effect like batik or watercolor, but she also applies it thickly with any number of instruments, including her hands.

The texture of the canvas seems to work with the color, giving luminosity akin to rich sunsets. If pressed, I would pick “Samurai” as my favorite—there is an affecting duskiness around intense colors somewhere between yellow and red.

But the paintings vary enough to make choosing unfair. Some are soft and luminous, an Impressionist feel. Others have striking color contrast. “On the Way Home” has a lot of interesting yellows, which I find is becoming my favorite color.

“Standstill” is a small painting with a landscape feel and depth. “Talking Sticks” appears to spell something, keeps catching the eye thereby. It also has a different, wet-looking finish.

Virginia makes an interesting observation. When groups of five-year-olds are asked how many are artists, most raise their hands. By junior high, the number falls to a few. This loss diminishes the world, she says. If one were to say of her abstract paintings, “A five-year-old could do it,” Virginia would reply, “Thank you.”

At five, our impulses are more open-heartedly followed. If only we could keep more of that as we mature. There’s one therapeutic role for art.

Even if you’re consumed by more prosaic distractions right now, you could pause for just a minute next time you’re in the library. If your distraction is representing yourself in civil court, note that Tuesday, March 18, will be the next Virtual Pro Se Legal Clinic at the library, 3-6 p.m.

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