FOR ME, ONE OF THE GIFTS of contemporary art is precisely its difficulty. A subtle blessing of such art—whether painting or poetry—is that it demands something of me, and above all it demands that I make myself available for contemplation.
This is because such art does not yield easily accessible nuggets of sentiment or pleasure. But its difficulty harbors an invitation. In its refusal to be immediately available to surface attention, it suggests that I might attend to my world differently. Rather than just offering emotion or decoration or a “statement,” the best contemporary art asks me to slow the frenetic pace of incessant distraction to pause and dwell. It requires a stillness that already verges on the spiritual.
One of the most convicting pictures I’ve seen of such spiritual stillness was Darius Marder’s recent film, Sound of Metal. The film follows the harrowing journey of Ruben, a heavy-metal drummer who experiences catastrophic hearing loss as a young man. What is unique about the movie is its sonic environment, the way the soundtrack invites us in and out of Ruben’s own point of—not view, but hearing. The opening scene is an overwhelming, alienating wall of sound. Four minutes in, you’ll be wondering if you can stay much longer. Then, in scenes from the next morning, the world’s quiet pleasures are a chorus: the crisp, gentle tinkling of cutlery; the drip of a coffee maker; rustling sheets upon waking and the gentle intimacy of a kiss.
But then all of this starts to be swallowed by muffled rumbles. The world itself seems to recede. An entire reality is becoming unavailable to Ruben. He is losing his hearing.
Because Ruben is also a recovering addict, his partner and bandmate is worried that this heartbreak will catalyze a relapse, and she finally convinces him to spend time in a recovery community for the deaf where they learn to stave off addiction while accepting, even welcoming, a new way of experiencing the world and community.
In a key scene, Joe, the community’s gentle but no-nonsense director, assigns Ruben a terrifying, Pascalian task: to be alone in a room with his thoughts. “You don’t need to fix anything here,” Joe says:
Nothing needs to be accomplished in this room. All I want you to do in this room is just sit. All I ask is that if and when you cannot just sit, you turn yourself to the pen and paper that I’m going to supply for you and I want you to write. It doesn’t matter what or how.… No one will read it. Keep writing continuously, without stopping, until you feel you can sit again.
Ruben looks for loopholes (“Does it have to be writing?”), but then Joe offers a word of solidarity: “I’ll be in my apartment, doing the same thing as you. I’ll be writing too.”
On the first day, Ruben takes the donut Joe leaves for him and mashes it in a rage, angry and befuddled at the futility of this assignment. The only sound in this scene is silence, pierced by Ruben’s angry screams and pounding fist and mocking laughter at the pointlessness of it all. At first, we hear this from the outside, as it were; we are hearing what Ruben cannot.
But then we’re pitched back inside Ruben’s head. The world is muffled but pulsating, rumbling. The world isn’t heard so much as felt. In short, percussion is how the world is experienced. Stillness is hard. This is going to take practice.
Ruben begins to belong. Enfolded in the community, he is finding himself in a new world. That his partner has returned to the road on tour seems less of a fixation for him. When we glimpse a table scene akin to Babette’s Feast, where boisterous laughter is the soundtrack of communion, with jokes and barbs traded in ASL, he looks at home.
Then we cut to Ruben, back in his Pascalian cell again. Leaves shimmer outside the window; clouds roll and roil; he sits quietly. Still.
But something gnaws at him. The next day, he steals into the administrator’s office and sneaks onto the internet—from which residents are barred as a distraction from the soul work they need to do. Once he’s online, his old world wends its way back in: the lure of what was, what might have been, wondering about her. His progress is undone. Ruben decides he’s going to fix the problem. He desperately amasses the money he needs for cochlear implants. And after the surgery, he shares the news with Joe, who is in his room, sitting, writing, trying to be still.
“I did the deed,” Ruben signs to him.
Joe is immediately pained. Even-tempered but saddened, he replies, “I wonder, all these mornings you’ve been sitting in my study, sitting, have you had any moments of stillness? Because you’re right, Ruben, the world does keep moving, and it can be a damn cruel place. But for me, those moments of stillness—that place, that’s the kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.”
With tears in his eyes, Joe says, “I see you’ve made your choice. And I sincerely hope that it brings you happiness, Ruben. But from where I’m sitting, you look and sound like an addict.” That is, Ruben is trying to get a fix. He’s still chasing something. When he asks if he can stay a while longer, Joe tells him a hard truth:
As you know, everyone here shares in the belief that being deaf is not a handicap—not something to fix. It’s pretty important around here. All these kids, all of us, need to be reminded of it every day. And my house is a house built on that belief, and built on trust. And when that trust is violated, things happen. And I can’t have that. There are too many others to consider. And so, in your current state, at this time, I’m going to have to ask you to pack up your bags today, and find another place to be, Ruben.
Ruben lost his hearing, and now, in trying to recover it, he has lost the community that welcomed him. Loss upon loss, when there was a gift to be found in the stillness.
Ruben’s losses continue to accumulate. In the end, the cochlear implants don’t restore his hearing; they simply introduce a noise so unbearable that, finally, Ruben unplugs them and is left with utter silence. In an unimaginable quiet, under dappled light through trees in the park, watching children laugh and play, Ruben just sits. He’s found something. Stillness.
What I can’t properly re-create here is the way the medium of film performs this, in a way that Pascal’s Pensées never could—that no argument could. The way Sound of Metal evokes a different, and difficult, sonic experience of the world is precisely what makes it art. And in doing so, Marder is inviting us to inhabit the world differently. In a sense, the movie is akin to Joe’s assignment: an invitation to sit quietly in a room and make ourselves available for an experience we can’t control, vulnerable to an encounter that might challenge and unsettle us. If you’ve only been primed to watch superhero movies, with their frenetic editing and overbearing soundtracks, watching Sound of Metal is going to feel like hard work. You’re going to feel the way Ruben did sitting in that room, until you give yourself over to the work of art—until you find a way to give the film a different kind of attention; until you give yourself over to the difficulty.
This kind of posture—attentive, vulnerable, considerate, and contemplative—turns out to be exactly what we need to practice in order to encounter the mystery of other human beings, our neighbors and fellow citizens. It’s also most often what we need to encounter the Ultimate Other who is God, whose Spirit whispers in ways that don’t overwhelm the noise but invite us to find him behind and under the noise.
Now, here we should note a certain bind, a kind of spiritual catch-22, a circle—not quite vicious—that we have to confront: Contemplation is a discipline, a habit of mind, and like any habit, wanting it is not enough. It takes practice. And so, while I’m encouraging us to see the practice in contemplation offered by an immersion in contemporary art, we should also recognize that we won’t necessarily find ourselves with the dispositions and habits of mind needed to dwell with the beautiful difficulty of contemporary poetry or painting. If you’ve never encountered anything like an Agnes Martin canvas before, you can’t simply walk up to it and start contemplating. You need an initiation into this way of being still.
Here’s why another ancient piece of wisdom is so relevant for us in the twenty-first century: we learn contemplation in community. We must be apprenticed into the possibility of sitting alone in a room. We need Joes to prod and guide us. So too with contemporary art: to overcome our initial alienation, we need communities to encourage and teach us how to see and hear. It’s my hope that Image is precisely a community that can play that role, helping us to learn to contemplate both contemporary art and God—and the entwinement of the two.