Cloud Gate (aka The Bean) in Chicago's Millennium Park
Chicago’s latest centerpiece was was dedicated at last yesterday, after a protracted birth process that saw it re-enter the womb briefly for a final polishing. (The photo above was taken before that, on September 5, 2004.) Cloud Gate, more popularly known as The Bean, is already a brilliant triumph.

It’s good for us to stretch our psyches, to keep them supple. The celebrated mythologist Joseph Campbell observed that

… any life or civilization brought to form as a result of a literal mythic identification or inflation, as a concrete imitatio dei, will necessarily bear the features of a nightmare, a dream-game too seriously played — in other words, madness;

To witness the result in color, simply turn on your 24-hour cable news channel.

So what’s the antidote? The influence of art, Campbell wrote, is what renders our collective monsters human and humane:

whereas, when the same mythological imagery is properly read as fantasy and allowed to play into life as art, not as nature — with irony and grace, not fierce daemonic compulsion — the psychological energies that were formerly in the capture of the compelling images take the images in capture, and can be deployed with optional spontaneity for life’s enrichment.

Art, done right, can have a profoundly civilizing effect on a society. Much of our contemporary art, however, is what Campbell described as “improper art.” This is art which either attempts to arouse its audience’s desire, as in advertising or pornography, or which is meant to repel its audience though ugliness or a political “message.” Proper art aims between these deviations and transfixes its audience in a state of “aesthetic arrest,” allowing us to momentarily crop out life’s whirling discord and focus on its infinite wonder.

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci at  The Louvre

The Mona Lisa has no message. She sits serenely on a wall at The Louvre while swarms of sweaty, shouting tourists elbow each other for flash photo positions in front of her. In a story that Joseph Campbell liked to tell, one sermon of The Buddha consisted of his simply lifting a flower. Yesterday, at the dedication of his magnificent piece, sculptor Anish Kapoor said that The Bean has no specific message. “When there’s nothing to say, maybe then it has some voice.”

Things unsaid confound Chicago’s local TV reporters, who, as with everything else, have reduced the work of art to a stupid conflict — in this case, a naming controversy: “Cloud Gate” vs. “The Bean.” Ordinary citizens, however, have proven much more fluent in their wordless conversations with the object. They walk around it, photograph it, look at their liquid selves in it, look at their friends and families in it, look at Chicago in it, and enter it to gaze up into its belly button, its omphalos of reflected infinity. You don’t hear many of them asking what it’s supposed to be, or what its message is.

At a time when arts education is being cut, and when public support for arts institutions is waning, Chicago has once again laid out a world class example of the city as a center of civilization. Millennium Park, created through private funding, has greatly enhanced Chicago’s already exceptional “front yard” along Lake Michigan. Even while American citizens commute in armored vehicles and retreat to gated communities, people of all backgrounds mingle in Millennium Park. They listen to music, they eat, they enjoy amazing works of art, they laugh and pose and splash and play. They act like human beings.

We should not underestimate the value of such graceful elasticity.

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