Self-Consciousness and Art

When killing yourself is beautiful…


Words and header art (entitled “Reaching”) by: Cristina Rutkowski

My mother left The Return of the King soundtrack in the dusty car CD player the other day. It’s not normally the type of music I use to color my morning, but since I wasn’t in the mood for flipping through stations, I apathetically allowed the disc some play time.

Then, it happened. Less than thirty seconds in, my apathy was hopelessly jolted by memory, and I was hurled down an avenue of anamnesis. I recalled the times when Elves and Hobbits did color my mornings, the afternoons when I set my errands to Spiderman and my commutes to Pirates of the Caribbean. They were days I felt free enough to make a short drive into town an absolutely epic affair. I listened to that magnanimous soundtrack, thinking of how inevitable it is, growing out of things. Epic movie soundtracks now are a little excessive and unnecessary in my eyes. Not to mention a little…offbeat.

I stayed in this frame of mind for a while, half tuning out the music to the sound of my own introspection. This continued until track four, “The White Tree,” the track that interrupted my thought process. Upon recognizing the melody as one recognizes an old friend, I knew my respect was being commanded. It was the kind of respect you want to pay a remake of a children’s book you once loved; the kind of sacred regard you want to have when handling a stuffed bear once named your most trusted companion. You may not enjoy it in the same way now, but you still want to approach it with a sort of nostalgic reverence.

In honor of this kind of now-faded sentiment, I reluctantly silenced my thoughts and just listened. Breathing deeply, I allowed myself to take in what I heard. Then came the shivers, the rush. By the time the brass and strings reached their glorious crescendo, I was totally and completely lost. If you happened to be in one of the cars on the Main Street intersection that Sunday morning, you may have seen a girl through the window of your car; one with her eyes closed, adrift in the music, blissfully directing an invisible orchestra for the entire duration of the red light.

There’s something freeing and life-affirming when we allow ourselves to be consumed by a beautiful experience. Whether it be the allure of a song, the aura of a painted canvas, or even the atmosphere of a candlelit room, beauty in and of itself can stir us. But beauty must be stepped into in order to be experienced. And in order to be properly experienced, there’s an element of self-awareness that must be killed.

Let’s say you decide to visit a gallery. Your eye is caught by a particular painting, so you walk over to it. You can’t put your finger on the feeling, but there’s something about this piece that you love. You step closer, and begin examining it. But as quickly as the presence of the painting pulled you in, you become acutely aware of another presence: the woman at the desk by the entrance, loftily watching you and the two others in the space. You look at them and see how quickly they’re walking past the canvases and decide to adjust to their tempo. Besides, the woman is looking over at you, and she can probably tell you know nothing about the art you’re squinting at. So you step back. The magic is lost. You walk the rest of the gallery at the pace of the others, not really wanting to stand out, and calculate how to make your exit discreetly. Well, that was a nice show, you think to yourself, half relieved to be out of the sight of those judging eyes. You’ll remember all the paintings in the gallery for a little while, but the strokes and colors will eventually fade from memory.

Now let’s pretend you went back in time and had a chance to experience that again, but with the good sense to forget about yourself. Your eye is caught by a particular painting, so you walk over to it. There’s no way for you to put your finger on exactly what it is, but there’s something about it that you love. You step closer and begin examining it. You become aware of the woman at the front desk, but you decidedly dismiss her judging gaze. Your eyes run over every square inch of the painting and then you step back. You read the name and you look at it again, connecting dots and piecing together a story. The other people in the room disappear, the room disappears, and there is only you and the painting. Then….there is only the painting.

That’s when an odd thing happens: the longer you look at the strokes and the texture, the more clearly your own emotions and thoughts become a part of them. You had forgotten about yourself and now, curiously enough, you find something else of yourself entirely – a thought, a feeling, a perspective that lay dormant for too long. You don’t know how much time you spent in front of that one painting, but it doesn’t matter. You leave the gallery with a flicker in your soul; a part of yourself resurrected. The place itself is forgotten almost as soon as you walk out the door, but that painting….that painting is now a part of you. You may eventually forget exactly how it looked, but you’ll never forget the way it kindled something inside.

All too often, things like art, music – or dare I say, even home decor – are dismissed as excessive and unnecessary. Or they’re just overlooked. It’s easy to sit in a candle-lit room and get so lost in our thoughts that we don’t ever see the candles. It’s even easier to look at the candles and become aware of self and circumstance: I paid for these candles. Do I really want to burn money right now? Or maybe, I have so many things to do….I shouldn’t just be sitting here. We get up, extinguish the candles, failing to see how we have also extinguished our chance to experience something life-giving. Something that could inspire us.

Candles aren’t usually put on the same plane as art and music, but truly, have you once allowed yourself to experience the warm glow of a candlelit room? Have you ever taken in the silent intensity of flickering shadows? A candle never fully experienced is nothing more than a backup source for power outages.

A painting not spent time with is only a pretty picture.

A piece of music never fully taken in is only sound.

A beautiful person not seen from the inside is only an object.

It seems that beauty can’t be revealed in life without putting to death our own ego, our own thoughts, and our own perspectives on what is necessary and good. Because there really is something about self-consciousness that dilutes everything true, beautiful, and generative in our lives. May we learn to kill that part of ourselves and finally start living.

One reply on “Self-Consciousness and Art”
  1. says: Anthony L Atkinson

    Hi Cristina. It’s Tony. I fondly remember you from your time at the Y when I used to stop by and have very pleasant conversations with you and Emily. This piece resonates with me on various levels and reminds me of how wonderfully articulate you are in general and just how well and strongly you are able to tune in to the beauty of all the things that we experience about the world and the universe that we live in; all the wondrous things that our various senses, mind, and spirit are capable of experiencing. How right you are about the benefit of being able to fully tune into something and drink in all that it has to offer. In such a state we are like children unconsciously playing and fascinated by whatever has drawn us in and grabbed our attention, whether it be drawing in the sand or playing with friends while in each passing moment simply delighting in the experience; merely focused on the sensations happening to us as if we were an instrument on which music was being played. I was also reminded of the place where I used to live and made a garden out of my back yard. I would spend entire weekends sitting on my back porch gazing on it and just thinking, letting my thoughts come and go as they pleased. Much of the time I would focus on a plant or some aspect of the garden and simply appreciate the beauty it had to offer. I would often find that my attention had drifted off into thoughts as if I was floating on free forming currents rambling with a sense of ultimate peace and freedom devoid of the effort, and concentration that is required by most of our lives, It was a sanctuary for me and I would often spend time there having my morning coffee and time there after getting home from work. I’ve heard testimonies about people who have had beautiful near death experiences and didn’t want to come back because of the overwhelming sense of peace and love they had and that is kind of how my experience with the garden was. That is to say, in my garden, I felt released from all my concerns and simply savored its’ beauty and allowed my thoughts to roam at will. There is something incredibly satisfying and therapeutic about relaxing in a garden and drifting in thoughts which is rather like observing the details in the artwork that is yourself. Except that we are more complex and it’s not so easy to see a definite picture of ourselves. It’s more like an impressionistic work or a dream of ourselves that we are trying to make sense of because as living beings our perceptions and circumstances change as we travel through life.

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