This is an adaptation of a talk I gave at Telling the Truth , a conference about Christian spirituality and the Arts. These ideas that define my thoughts about why I believe art is important continue to motivate my art practice.
After fulfilling my dream of studying at art college I came up to a BIG sign in my mind that said:
“WHAT GOOD IS BEING AN ARTIST IN A BROKEN WORLD?”
Today, I would like to present what may be a reply to that question and why I have become convinced that the attitude and practice of being an artist is not only a good in the world but perhaps essential.
In the last week I have been to a play, listened to music, saw two films, went to the Art Gallery, made my own art and worked on this talk. During one film-an adaptation of the novel “The Human Stain”- I thought, “That’s what we do (as artists) isn’t it- we take private pain and make a story for all of us, we take what makes no sense and give it context, we take what is separate and give it relationship.”
Through art, human beings create relationship between apparent dualities – we combine what is logical with what is emotional, . Artists highlight our human foibles and find wisdom in them- we turn our wounds into a tragedy, we transform our ridiculousness into comedy. We transform a history of violence into into a work of peace. We take pictures and make words, we take words and make pictures. We restore what is broken and make something beautiful.
Art puts all the pieces of the brokenness of life together. It all gets chucked in -love, hate, religion, science, crap, fragrance, sense, stupidity, animals, plants, good, bad, sickness, health, devastation, joy – it all gets chucked into the arts and something is made from it.
It’s like Art is one great big compost heap: throw it all in – it’ll get turned into something that’s good, that enriches our existence. Art turns the dust from which we are made into soil from which life grows.
Artists are like scavengers in the garbage dump of a broken world. Some of us spy beauty and say “Here! Look at this!…and there…look what’s shining?!…yes! I can see it! I’ll take it home and make it gleam!!!”
Some artists find broken pieces and put them together to give them new sense and form, while some dig really deep into the stinking, hot, dark of decay and find treasure that might have been lost forever. Our work is a salvaging work.
I would like to talk about four things that visual artists are involved in salvaging:
Beauty, Vision, Creation and the Child.
I imagine Beauty as a nourishing beast whom we are meant to feed from, but it’s body has been left to rot while commercialism has dangled it’s skin before our eyes to hide the greed that wants to feed off us . While we are called consumers we are the ones being consumed. Beauty is indeed skin deep in our society.
The artist sees past the surface to find beauty and form in the very stuff of life -whether it’s good, bad, ugly or pretty. We don’t demand beauty be “pulled together”- we find it also in the pulled apart. Beauty is how goodness and truth find form and obtain more than just a theoretical or moralistic presence in our lives.
Our ability to see beauty, however, has been blasted and disabled by a constant bombardment of images that tell us nothing and lead us nowhere. At a time when we are saturated with visual imagery we are the most visually illiterate culture that has ever existed. We are no longer present when we look at the world.
We cannot read pictures unless they are presented in a pseudo photographic style. We look a painting or a vista for as long as an image on a screen would stay in our field of vision. At a popular exhibit I noticed people remained the same distance from a work of art as they would from their televisions.
Why should we bother with art at all? We are already overloaded with image – what more can a painting, a sculpture, a drawing give us?
Our vision needs more than image. We need to comprehend line, shape, colour, texture, size and form. As well as preventing our souls being experienced by the world, clouded vision prevents the world being experienced in all its variety and richness. Art challenges and heals our vision so that when we look at the world around us we may actually be touched by it, and it us. Whole vision is a gateway to all our senses and indeed, Christ says that our eyes are the windows to our souls.
Whole vision allows us to respond to the world as a participant not only as an observer. We help heal the rift between us and the rest of creation.
Art allows us to reconnect to the revelation of God in creation. Creation speaks without words. If God went through all that trouble to express love and life through form, it behooves God’s children to comprehend it.
Contemplative prayer may be doing Art a favour here. The contemplative attitude of waiting, attentiveness, humility and quiet, the putting aside of our own voice and the recognition of connection is exactly what is needed to comprehend visual language and learn to “listen” with our eyes again. And the Visual Arts may return the favour. Visual language does not depend on words. The visual arts might well be called the language of silence.
At our mother’s breast we take in with our eyes what nourishes us – as we suckle, human babies are the only creatures that can gaze into their mothers’ eyes- we are connected to the source of life. It is a great regret that children as they grow are told not to touch what they see- a requirement which limits vision to two dimensions without relevance to corporeal experience.
Little children do not rely on words; they are sensate, open to the world, expressive, emotional, curious and unaware of time. Children are by nature what artists need to be in practice, and the practice of art may be the way in which adults could cultivate the gifts of the child into their life.
It could be that an artistic attitude could help us understand our children, and also help us understand what Christ meant when he said we need to be as children. Indeed, the Arts could be described as: the conscious cultivation of the gifts of the child into our adult and collective life.
“Let the little children come unto me..be as one of these”