July 4, 2017

Why Art? - Thoughts on artists and their work. Sarah Myers

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Study of Eyes, Sarah Myers
Why Art?

        If you ask, “Why create Art?” you will receive many different, and strange – and wrong – answers. You will hear that Art is a hobby, something you throw your time away on in retirement or between jobs. You will hear that Art is therapy, something people do to salvage their minds in times of stress or illness. You will hear that Art is a vehicle for protest, to correct social ills. You will hear Art is a personal indulgence. Or a mild form of insanity. Or a way to stave off boredom. And all of these answers are wrong. But you will not hear anyone give a correct answer, because, in cultures where Art is a necessity, the question is not asked to begin with. It's like asking why there are chefs to design food – why there are designers to create clothes – why there are inventors or innovators of any kind. It is not in one sense “necessary” to have good cuisine; or fashion; or even advanced medicine. Many lives have lived without these good things, and many lives have gone without the refreshment of man-made images, beautiful or impressive or enlightening. In fact, though rare, there are whole cultures that have not possessed any comprehensive artistic expression - there were prehistoric tribes which for hundreds of years produced little known imagery except spirals. Well-drawn spirals, admittedly, engraved with skill, and obviously regarded as significant - but spirals and related abstract lines alone. These people began to create stylized beast and human forms only after contact with the civilized Romans.
        Art is necessary for mankind's intellect (rather than his body) and it is necessary for civilization. And being an Artist is a very simple, very earnest, very tasking thing – it is being a Designer of Images. All of us are artists with our eyes – each mind sees the wonderful, the unusual, the familiar, the desirable, and puts it back for reference in the memory. But memory often cannot reproduce the completeness, the sharpness, the reality, that the original impact had for us – cannot reproduce it even for ourselves, and without concrete expression, can certainly not convey it to other minds and souls. Art is a record. It is the visual record that the intellect, unable to depend on personal experience, demands to claim or to reclaim a reality.
        Art is a record of sight and thought. It captures the thought or the glimpse and puts it into a form capable of being viewed by others, of being revisited by the artist themselves. It is like writing; once the thought is captured in a word or an image, it remains as a real presence.
       You must ask carefully what you want to give this immortality to. It is not enough to be able to draw (or carve, or paint, or photograph) something – anything - anymore than it is enough to be able to speak words. You do not go about speaking words, any words, simply to show that you have the capacity to talk. We put much more literary value on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar than on a volume of financial regulations, even if there are more words in the latter. Though there can be some serendipity in art, and some acceptance of unexpected experimental results, the artist should have control and authority over his creation. He is forming it for its permanent function.
        All things start with a vision; a city where there is only a plain, a voyage on an empty sea, freedom and warfare and healing, crop-fields and monuments and roads, the good and bad of men's lives alike.
        The Artist is the maker of visions.
        You are making your own future when you create art. You are forming others' future. In fact, you are forming mine; and that is what prompted me to write this article.
        It occurred to me, after some time of observation, that artists just now – especially young artists – do not realize what their occupation is; this huge vocation as an image-designer, or vision-maker, or future-creator. They do not know they themselves will soon determine what fills, not only their minds, but the minds of others. And not only the minds, but the experiences. They are repeating what they passively absorb or reacting to what they passively absorb – the world is currently full of naive plagiarism. If the content being thus mindlessly spread was, in its original form, uplifting or enlightening, the results of unquestioning repetition would merely be innocuous at best, vacuous at worst. But at the moment, it is an assemblage of very low-quality, morbid and often sordid material; usually depressing or demoralizing in its final effect.
       I am not for a moment going to suggest that we should equally mindlessly respond like those who obeyed the dictatorial cultures of the last century, in the Soviet Union and Germany: the demand that all art shall be – perforce - figurative, hearty, “wholesome”, supportive of a regime. If our souls are like those of the German Expressionists, crying out in agony at the culture surrounding us, we need to take this into serious account. Or if we have found a new way of seeing the splendour or vitality of life, but a way which is not immediately understood through means of the old conventions (and therefore not thought “accurate” or “beautiful” by those who are only acceptant of older styles) this too needs concentration and nourishment. But that is just the point; we need to consider what we are doing, what we are perpetuating, and why.
       Because when you draw, or paint, sculpt or photograph something, you are not merely telling us about it. You are creating a new vision of it. You are almost creating the thing over again, making it new, in your own mind and in the minds of others. If you draw a cow, and I see and internalize your image of a cow, the next time I actually see a real cow I will not just be seeing the cow, or my image of the cow alone, I will be seeing your cow also. In the realm of art, you are inventing a cow, or woman, or a tree, or a sky, a shape, a hue, that has not been there before. You are recording a thought or an object's existence. Once I have seen it, it will be present for me - by itself, and also in those things I see later which remind me of it. Art is a record – once the expression is there, you and I can revisit it, revisit the thought or the moment that otherwise is lost, without language, without substance, in the abyss of time and forgetfulness.
       And it is on these stones of imagery, visual language, memory, delineation, that higher cultures are built. It is the basis for their understanding of what their peoples see and experience day by day. The European Medieval peasant sees the sculpture of a peasant plowing on the facade of his cathedral, and he interprets his own activity and his own identity by the image. A modern man views Picasso's “Guernica” and it shapes his attitude toward the injustice of war. A citizen of ancient Athens sees Wisdom as a thing both beautiful and formidable, a woman with a spear and the death-gaze of the Medusa on her shield. If I see the blue of a Matisse sky, or the blue of a sky by Francois Boucher, or the blue of the sky painted on the ceiling of an Egyptian tomb, will I not see the blue of my own sky through those thousand blues that I have assimilated through the experience of other eyes, who knew how to record the tint or the thought of their skies? And if you paint me a green sky, I may soon understand one of many things – I will understand that the sky, under certain circumstances of weather and environment, is indeed more green than blue – or I will understand the effect it would have on our emotions if, in a suddenly altered world, all sunlight were green – the quiet grace of the colour, as the overarching heaven – the fearful ghastliness of the colour, as an all-surrounding cloud – what you thought, when you made a green sky as a building block in the world of the mind.
        With your art you are not only defining a thought, you are creating a thought, and not only creating a thought but – insofar as your work is unique and superior – a way of thinking. If what you produce is solid enough, useful enough, and circulates to any extent, it will be utilized as building material in your culture. Imagery is one of the chief building materials of any progressive civilization, at any time, in any place. And especially in our era, the cataract of pictures, symbols and images - pouring into the collectively insatiable minds and eyes of our populaces - is there for a reason. There is an ancient Hebrew proverb, attributed to Solomon the Great - “the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing”. The more mankind sees and hears, the more he wishes to see and hear. What he takes in, culturally, will be either valuable or worthless – enlightening or vitiating. It is our labour, as artists, to ensure the quality of what goes in. For mankind will keep watching and listening. He cannot stop, any more than he can stop eating or stop breathing.
       If an artist finds themselves disturbed by the idea of their own work going directly into their culture as one of these building blocks, they must pause and think. Indeed, it is necessary for us all to pause and ask, at the first sign of uneasiness, “Why am I uncomfortable with my work forming a part of the context around me, with my art being used as part of the material constructing this culture?” It is a more important subject than it may seem to the individual artist, struggling merely to create good work. And one of the reasons for its importance is this: great art always outlasts politics; it even outlasts societies, civilizations and religious forms. How many of you know the face of the Mona Lisa, the name of Leonardo Da Vinci? But how many of you know the names of the Sforzas and or the members of the Florentine Signoria for whom the artist worked? How many of us have seen the crumbled but perfect forms of the Grecian gods, and understood something of beauty and glory that we did not know before? But how many of us worship Poseidon or Aphrodite, or would know the correct offering or rites to approach them religiously? We walk over the ruins of dead civilizations, combing the dust for artifacts, and lift from their long sleep the small stone images, the small gold jewels. We do not own the suzerainty of their kings or nobles – authority long perished – we do not descend from their peoples – lost in the wanderings of a thousand tribes – we may not even be able to decipher their languages. But we treasure their art, we look and we stretch back over the millennia to revisit the thought of one artist, his one reflection or one transient moment of his life that was caught in a solid form.
        So the artist understands, more clearly than others, perhaps, that neither he nor his work exists in only one context. His thought and his art travel from era to era – even from culture to culture. If this is bound to happen inevitably, after he and his contemporary culture vanish from the earth, it is as well to view it as a possible source of freedom while he is still alive and has creations and inventions yet to produce. It is essential to look outside one's time and place – to know what is mere cultural imposition or assumption, what is only the trend of a generation (perhaps only of a decade!), and what is a lasting desire or reality – what is an eternal question, and what merely a conundrum of some over-sophisticated social structure, or a hardship of an immature system unexpectedly lacking some human necessity. And when there is a lack, aesthetically, personally, societally, the artist asks, Can he supply it from some other time, some other place? If there is insurmountable antipathy between his art and his surrounding culture, should he, at any time, wholly switch cultures? How much of culture can he create himself? How much with the help of others?
        As disorienting as these considerations may seem, the artist is almost always asking them on a small scale. He borrows across ages and across geographical divides, practically without thought, to mend some compositional defect in a painting, or to provide some colour or sensitivity to a form. The Renaissance artist brings back the fluid bodies of the ancient Greeks; the twentieth-century painter sources his strong shapes from the art of Pacific Islanders; there is a medley and chaos of influences in every piece of fine art that has ever been produced.
       Someone ignorant of history laughs at the ideals and achievements of past cultures, not knowing that the rules of his own culture, by which he judges, are just as trite, and his civilization just as transient. The artist knows more; and though he does not need to strive, in some cold and abstract way, for “timelessness”, he must still be aware of his own works' possible position in the destiny of humankind. Will his efforts help the intellect of men now – help them to be greater, and wiser, more merciful and more just? Give them visions of the things they cannot yet dream, but need to be able to dream and to fulfill? Will his efforts still be of use in a decade more? Fifty years? A century? If his artwork is dug up from the wreck of the civilization which claimed him as its own, long after all memory of its politics and fashions and commerce is gone, will his record of one moment or one thought still provide food to the human mind, a vision for a new time that even he could not foresee?

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