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Attending to Art by Kim Kankiewicz

When is the last time you were moved to tears? For me, it was at a concert I attended during a Memorial Day visit to the World War I Museum in Kansas City. I was unfamiliar with the performers, baritone John Brancy and pianist Peter Dugan. I hadn’t heard of George Butterworth, the composer of the song that brought tears to my eyes. I didn’t recognize the song lyrics, from a poem called “Is My Team Ploughing?” by A.E. Housman. I was there because it was a free concert. I didn’t expect to cry.

“Is My Team Ploughing?” is a conversation between a fallen soldier and his friend, who is still living. Butterworth set the poem to music two years before he himself was killed in WWI. Brancy and Dugan recorded the song for their album A Silent Night: A WWI Memorial in Song. You can hear the recording online. Everything about the piece is poignant, but I’m not sure the recording would have moved me the way the performance did. It was the gift of the moment that made me cry: the fact that two young musicians recognize their commonality with men who died a century ago; that they cared enough about these men’s stories to memorialize them with their music; that they traveled to Kansas City for the sole purpose of sharing their music with a small audience that included me.

There’s something about the live experience of art that stirs my soul. At a concert or a play, I come face to face with other humans, created in God’s image, expressing some part of what it means to be alive. In a museum or gallery, I encounter people’s ideas and emotions through the work of their hands. This doesn’t require a professional performance or flawless execution. I often sense something sacred in amateur or local art. Our world is busy, commerce-driven, image-focused, and competitive. It’s a kind of miracle when people dedicate time and attention to art and have the courage to share what they’ve created. Making art, despite all that seems urgent, can be an act of worship, a recognition of something greater that connects us, an expression of humility and gratitude. Witnessing art can draw us into that worship.

I thought about this a few days after Memorial Day when I read the story of renowned violinist Joshua Bell playing his Stradivarius in a D.C. Metro station, where hundreds of people rushed past him without noticing. (When my kids ignore me, I like to say, “What am I? Joshua Bell in a Metro station?”) While I remember the video that made the news in 2007, I hadn’t read the full story of Bell’s Metro performance until last week. Here’s a passage from the story in the Washington Post:

In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run—for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only 3 feet away, few even turning to look…

It was all videotaped by a hidden camera. You can play the recording once or fifteen times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent newsreels. The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts, cups of coffee in their hands, cell phones at their ears, ID tags slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia, and the dingy, gray rush of modernity. Even at this accelerated pace, though, the fiddler’s movements remain fluid and graceful; he seems so apart from his audience—unseen, unheard, otherworldly—that you find yourself thinking that he’s not really there. A ghost.

Only then do you see it: He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts.

Couldn’t this be a metaphor for our failure to notice God? God gets our attention through nature and Scripture, through life-changing circumstances and uncommon gestures of grace. Maybe God also invites us to attend when a humble mortal reflects the Creator by participating in the creative arts. Will we pause to see, hear, and reflect?

Is My Team Ploughing,” recorded by John Brancy and Peter Dugan

Joshua Bell’s incognito performance at a D.C. Metro station

“Pearls Before Breakfast,” Gene Weingarten’s article about Joshua Bell for The Washington Post Magazine