Tension = The act or process of stretching something tight; the condition of being stretched
Art reflects life. And life is full of tension.
So often we assume tension only has to do with the negative side of things. But if all there was was negative stuff, we wouldn’t have tension; we’d just be flat-out defeated and resign ourselves to believing there’s no hope. We’d all end up like the uncaring, unfeeling, un-dead people we see and read about in the explosion of dystopian films and books out there.
But tension doesn’t only exist because of bad things that happen. It exists because we know there’s a better way.
Whenever I hear the word “tension”, I always think of tightropes (maybe because I was always both intrigued and terrified of the circus as a child). Tightropes have two anchors, one on each side of the arena. Now think about it: if both anchors were on the same side, you wouldn’t have a tightrope. It wouldn’t be possible to create the tension in the rope that the walker needs to walk across it. The walker needs tension, or they’re going nowhere.
Opposite sides of the arena. So, if part of our tension is planted in negativity, then the other part must be planted in positivity. Or else tension simply wouldn’t exist.
Now, we know that there is more to life than the negative. We’ve seen it. We’ve felt it. It’s what we want. It’s what we yearn for. We want the world to be a good place, a safe place, a whole place. We want our lives to be fulfilling, satisfying, rewarding. We want to make a difference, have a voice, be heard. But we’re forced into a balancing act because the tightrope of our lives is strung between two opposing poles: one is fixed to what we want our world and our life to be, the other is fixed to what our world and our life really are.
I often struggle with keeping my balance on the tightrope of tension. I either focus too heavily on the good in the world and working on my own potential that I lose sight of the suffering and the struggling going on around me. Or I focus too heavily on everything that’s bad and wrong and broken that I lose sight of the beauty and goodness and possibilities, resulting in despair and loss of hope.You see, when my anchors move too closely to one another, I lose my ability to walk effectively. Forward movement. Progression. Change. The only way to achieve any of that is by keeping both sides in equal perspective; in balanced tension.
Which brings me back to this: Art reflects life. Situationally, perhaps. But moreso in terms of tone, mood, feelings, ideals. In a word: tension. We all know when we experience a remarkable painting, song, sculpture, photograph, work of writing – because we feel the tension within that piece. It’s what speaks to us. It’s what we relate to. It’s what draws us. Without tension art falls flat, it leaves us wanting, it feels empty. Because it doesn’t reflect what we intimately know: real life.
For example, my favorite painting is Vincent VanGogh’s “Starry Night”. To me it perfectly captures the state of his tormented soul through the deep, vivid colors and furious brush strokes, and how that contrasts, yet eerily compliments, the magnificence, order, and freedom of a wide open starry sky. Now, I haven’t spent time in a mental institution like VanGogh did when he created this painting, so I can’t relate to his situation. However, I can totally relate to feelings of despair and confusion and anger and wanting to be free of them – knowing that there is something better out there, something good and right and freeing. I can relate to the tension between where I am and where I want to be.
That’s what art does. It reaches far beyond situation. It connects. It speaks. It authenticates. It lets the viewer, reader, hearer know they are not alone on the tightrope. And it assures that the tightrope is the place to be, because when it’s at its best, art creates the tension needed to spur on change. Change of heart. Change of mind. Change to make the world a better place amidst its brokenness.