The simplest definition of Art is that which makes us actually see what we have already seen (but not seen); know what we already knew (but did not know). Key aspects of the human struggle are thoroughly known and explored by us all, many to the point of cliche and lost meaning. The magic of Art is that it breaks through this and shocks the viewer into a fresh understanding.
But Great Art goes even further: it evokes an actual experience of that which is being depicted.
The movie Black Swan does this. Natalie Portman is breathtaking in her performance. The Director, Darren Aronofsky, brings us through with reckless abandon, and yet with confidence and care. In the midst of an unpredictable and intensely uncomfortable journey through the swan queen’s inner horror, we never feel at risk. I still have chills traversing my body, though I left the theater more than an hour ago.
Black Swan‘s themes are quite familiar: a girl seizes adulthood and breaks through the crush of a maternal grip; an artist pushes past technique and reaches something transcendent; each of us faces his own worst enemy, which is in fact himself (though he imagines it to be the Other); the yin and yang struggle for supremacy in the play of consciousness.
All of these are intensely painful as each of us moves through life, but as humans, we endure life’s pain by numbing ourselves in countless ways; we dissociate and survive. Black Swan does not allow you this defense, and that is its genius: it rips you open, makes you feel it all, and summons your own shades of self destruction and inner turmoil, whether mild or severe. The beauty of it is that only in this field of experience can an act of transcendence, such as the one depicted in the final act, truly penetrate and touch your soul: the final triumph is revealed and experienced as the kingdom of god in the here and now, complete with the scars of a battle well fought (and not with the Hollywood fugazy of an unmarked hero). No one gets through clean. Life is a dirty business, yet glorious.
By the time the credits roll, we are there with her, and then deposited safely back on the ground, fully present, and yet on wobbly legs. To attain this condition is a gift, and we need Art to give it to us. Black Swan does.