I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the arts—musical, visual, literary—and their status as “extra”—some sort of bonus in education, in life, in how we spend our time and money. Obviously in the list of priorities it can’t come before things like food, shelter, and health. And as far as an education goes, literacy and math skills are fundamental; when the money gets tight what are you going to cut, reading programs or music programs?
But really—are the arts extra? Or are they a basic part of who we are as human beings? When the French composer Olivier Messiaen was captured by the German army and imprisoned at Stalag 8A, he brought his compositional sketches with him. In the midst of deprivation he wrote music, inspired by the nightingales that sang just beyond the barbed wire fences surrounding the camp and the words of Revelation 10:1-2, 5-7:
“And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire…and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth…And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever…that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished…”.
A young German officer became Messiaen’s patron of sorts, providing a place for him to write every day and helping him find instruments and other musicians. On January 15, 1941, the “Quator pour la fin du temps”, “Quartet for the End of Time” had its premiere in Stalag 8A in front of around 400 POWs and prison guards. In a place where the basics were severely lacking, Messiaen said later that “Never have I been heard with such attention and understanding.” (Author’s note at the end of the book).
What does this say about who we are and what is really important? What if, in our own lives and in the education of our children, we treated the arts in one form or another as basic to our existence?