Header Image—detail of Mercury Window

Art as Potential: The Potential of Art

Based on an article in the Botton Village News 1991

As a visual artist I take up the pen reluctantly. There are however some general and fundamental issues which I feel called upon to discuss. These centre around ‘seeing’ and ‘experiencing’ contemporary art in a new way, and perhaps placing the arts back into the dynamic role they ought to have.

Many people still have a direct and meaningful connection with the art and culture of former times. Egypt, Greece, Ireland and the Renaissance, even painting and sculpture from the first third of the 20th century are loved, venerated and enjoyed. Never before have so many people travelled, visited ancient sites, taken photographs, bought art books and hung reproductions of the great masters on their walls. There is a great longing to be surrounded by the dear well known fragments of the past.

Why this longing? Why this hunger? Perhaps people are searching for beauty, perfection and inspiration. Much of the so called culture of today seems a hollow wasteland, a dry over intellectual sphere or a frantic chase after baubles. Between the longing for great art and the manifestations of contemporary culture, there must be some middle ground, something that leads into the future.

The fragments of past cultures bear within them the genius of a people. They were created by individual artist-craftsmen , but the overriding inspiration was  greater and far more potent then the individual. They worked out of a  totality of integrity, out of an instinctive service for the divine. Each cultural epoch brought something new, a form entirely suited to itself, but the people striving to manifest it, did not innovate or invent out of themselves. It is this super-sensible quality that we recognise in ancient art, it is this that even now inspires and warms our souls.

The Renaissance as the dawning of our age brought something entirely new into the world. It was possible for the first time in human history for an individual to represent a whole culture in themselves. Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo were geniuses in the fullest sense of the word. They attained a new pinnacle of human achievement hitherto undreamt of. They are our cultural ancestors but also our greatest handicaps in a true understanding of contemporary art and its potential.

Since about the second third of the 20th century there appears to have been a kind of cultural vacuum. The artists who worked at the end of the 19th and into the 20th century were the heralds of a new age. They sought to overcome the stuffy traditions of the academies and the preconceptions of the bourgeois. They stood between the genius of the Renaissance and the new man who must transform the outer world into  inner experience.

The artist today works in a void, the traditions have been superseded and all aspects of his work have been usurped by the clever inventions of science. Photography has largely negated the need for painted portraits; huge advertisements for mundane products are today’s paintings. Recorded music reduces the numbers of composers and musicians. Television makes obsolete visits to the opera, theatre and ballet. The modern artist lives and works in a culture which has made him redundant and impotent.

The money led avant-garde, fosters and promotes the work of certain artists, but the general public more often than not greet their work with suspicion, revulsion or simple indifference. It might well be meaningful on a remote intellectual level as a development of some petty innovation but seems to lack that essential ingredient that we could call ‘soul food’.

The artist has to find his way through a bewildering hall of mirrors in an atmosphere of indifference and redundancy. How can this be achieved? It seems fairly clear that he cannot convince the world that really– it’s all a big misunderstanding, that civilisation and culture need him. Many people appear to function very well without the slightest exposure to, or interest in living art. Hence the way forward is not through glitz and glitter, the ephemera of outer success, but through an ever more inward process; spiritualisation of his medium and of himself.

Spiritualisation is a process of redemption. A coarse substance such as stone or paint can be so penetrated by an artist’s love and will, that it becomes something else. It is refined in a crucible of experience and suffering and is ennobled. Base metal becomes gold, the human being gives back his talents to the Creator and they are multiplied a thousandfold.

Spiritualisation is the complete reverse of all trends affected by the misuse of technology. Human cleverness creates machines which distract mankind ever further away from direct contact with living processes. Matter falls away like a kind of slag unloved and unredeemed and the human being penetrates neither into the mysteries of life nor into his own inner being.

Self knowledge stands like a beacon in the darkness showing the possibility of future development; a richer, more spiritualised culture in the world. Somehow there needs to be an acknowledgement and recognition of ‘inner development,’ the conscious progression of consciousness. This consciousness, when poured into creativity will give rise to the new, true art. This stream of development implies a process of change; nothing is fixed and static, nothing is achieved.  Contemporary art could be seen as signposts along the way, a form of externalised diary, imaginations that carry the potential for greater refinement and higher truth.

To become this vessel of higher truth, the artist needs courage and ruthless honesty. He has to overcome the monstrous and the sentimental; but above all he must overcome the convenient packaging of his own style. If he is truthful to himself and to the medium, truth will reveal itself through him, not a subjective self-indulgent truth, but a truth which is the very foundation of existence. It is truthfulness that will reinstate the artist into the heart of civilisation, give humanity new ideals and new hopes, make possible a future; for what lies hidden within each individual is the spiritual destiny of mankind.

So — all this said, how can we recognise true modern art? If honesty and courage are demanded of the artist, they too are demanded of the viewer. Prejudices should be overcome, likes and dislikes, over-expectations, but above all the wish to be lulled into a kind of slumber of enjoyment.

We all live within the prejudices of our time, environment and upbringing, this is both a help and a hindrance. Prejudice implies a certain critical faculty which of course is invaluable, it also creates enormous obstacles. Perhaps we should not have over-expectations, hanker for works of sublime genius on par with the Renaissance greats. We live in an era were genius is short on the ground. Each of us exists between the extremes of genius and utter inability. As artists we struggle between genius and incompetence, our work itself is a mingling of both. Genius is a flower in autumn, to misquote the fifth Dalai Lama, it is never a static achieved thing, perhaps it only exists as a potential. It is this little seed of potential that could address us, propel us along our own little journey.

Built into the scheme of traditional Islamic art there was a flaw factor. Somewhere in that awe inspiring matrix of absolute symmetry and perfection there was a deliberate glitch.

The artist-craftsmen purposely implanted error in the belief that only God is perfect. Man should not aspire to something that truly lives within the domain of God. This is a very real perception, for it is just this element of imperfection which sets up a dynamic. Imperfection within the greater whole of perfection is a picture of the human condition. Perfection is a static state that engenders helplessness and complacency. Imperfection propels us towards greater awareness.

Thus, when we stand in front of a work of art without preconceptions and prejudices, it is our creative potential that can be stirred. Perfection or imperfection are of little account, what really matters is the stirring.  Does it move our thinking? Does it nourish our feeling? Does it impel our will? Can we imaginatively participate in its creation? Can we become fellow creators?  Perhaps the truly modern work of art is something which does not only happen in the material or in the mind of the artist but in the living and dynamic interchange of people.

Maybe the individual firebrand, the cutting edge innovator needs to adjust his perspective, needs to engage more creatively with other people. In return he could receive patronage, not as in former times the patronage of the church or of wealthy individuals, but the patronage of groups or communities who strive to unlock their potential. For artists need to be needed and communities (I mean this in the broadest possible sense) need artists.

Art as Potential: The Potential of Art
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