Painting as Prayer: Artistic Process as Mystical Exploration "Robert & Elizabeth Johnson Professorship in Leadership" lecture series Franklin College, Franklin, IN, March 15, 2007

Painting as Prayer: Artistic Process as Mystical Exploration

"Robert & Elizabeth Johnson Professorship in Leadership" lecture series
Franklin College, Franklin, IN, March 15, 2007

Painting as Prayer: Artistic Process as Mystical Exploration

The great contemporary British painter Frank Auerbach said: "Real artistic style is not donning a mantle or having a program; it’s how one behaves in a crisis." A truly personal artistic vision cannot grow out of a search among the known and easy to understand symbols awash in the general culture; it is into the crisis that an artist must plunge to achieve visionary worth.

Artistic success begins in a hopeless, blind search, Auerbach’s "crisis." The question, the inspiration causes the artist to create is irrelevant – in fact, in thinking too hard on the specific, intellectual inspiration, a personal style can become muddied. As Auerbach, again, said:

"In a good painting, everything is painted with the pressure of a grander agenda behind it, but sometimes the agenda isn’t clear to the artist until the very end. The problem is always to identify it. The act of recognizing it can burst the painting, and often it will."

The proper response to the artistic crisis will always be the same: it will be unfathomable to the artist, a meaning that flows from the passionate, desperate, even hopeless visual quest. Look too closely for it, and it disintegrates, leaving a mediocre work of art as its residue.

But how, then, to get into this necessary creative crisis, the place where true, personal vision can begin to unfold? And why is it so difficult to find one’s way there?

Most of us artists are felled by fear. And it is just this fear of the unknown, as it plays itself out in the act of creation, which is so difficult to understand. After all, when the artist stands before a piece of paper or a stretched canvas, objectively speaking, nothing is truly at risk. At the very worst, they can throw away the piece of paper or paint over the canvas. Yet something often stops the artist from visually leaping off of the cliff into the unfathomable. Why? Is it because they are afraid that no one will "understand" them if they themselves don’t understand what they are doing?

Perhaps, but there is something even more primal to this fear. After all, if an artist is to do a "great" work of art, one that even he or she cannot consciously understand, it will mean that they have within themselves something completely incomprehensible; and the incomprehensible always terrifies us, even if it is benign, even if it represents the ineffable power of the universe Itself. After all, the most pressing human crisis is existential: what is the meaning of life? All other crisis are simply echoes of this fundamental terror.

If a person decides to create art that is not clearly understood by the people around them, and obscure even to themselves (as true creativity will always be), they are risking their tenuous hold on meaning and personal, existential worth. Except for the most spiritually realized amongst us (who wouldn’t bother with art, anyway!), we find our own existential worth in the mirror of the eyes that surround us, in our worth as it is perceived by the general society; if we only find confusion in those eyes, and no monetary remuneration to ease the pain, then we ourselves must be horribly confused – and perhaps even existentially worthless.

This fear of creativity is hardly an inconsequential issue: it stems from a long-ago evolutionary need, a manner in which to protect the Neanderthal hunter from the world around it, though now "protecting" the artist from the necessary crisis of their true creativity. Back in the day, one didn’t survive on their own; they joined the group and made sure to fit in. One needed access to the campfire, the community food chest (in the form of the slaughtered Wooly Mammoth), the women that gathered around the head honcho – back in the day, the social iconoclast, the creative genius and lonely artist were soon dead.

This dynamic replays itself in the studio, as unconscious fears of being incomprehensibly different, becoming ostracized, well up and cause a friction against which the artist must consciously fight. The fear of doing a painting that will not be "understood" is primal – this is Auerbach’s crisis; the conscious desire to overcome this fear and create a work that accesses the highest aspects of human experience is fully human. But to create a fully human art, one must wrestle with the semi-human urges that well up from within, leftovers from a time when survival was inextricably interlaced with belonging.

This is why the greatest artists view their work as so important or, as Auerbach averred, "with the pressure of a grander agenda behind it;" because whether they are aware of it or not, these artists are expressing what it means to be truly human, what it is like not to be beholden to the ghosts of earlier life forms and the surrounding morass of the contemporary culture that these spawned; the true artist moves beyond the horror of being a simple survival instinct with prehensile hands.

Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese modernist poet from the last century, said that the truly creative artist will not fit into the canons that exist in the minds of his or her contemporary critics; an art critic, a eunuch who knows well the theory of creating art but can never produce anything him or herself, is incapable of understanding a truly new artistic voice, as they cannot see beyond their own primal need to belong. To go out on a limb, even if the "new" voice is truly worthwhile, risks too much – it risks being ostracized from the fire and the warm bodies, and being jettisoned into the dark of the unknown, without fresh bison meat and comely sexual partners.

The art world takes place in the haze of a primal terror no less than politics or social interactions. We must belong; at least, that is what our preconscious drivers insinuate into the higher reaches of our conscious mind. We must belong to survive; if we are somehow cut off from the group, we will die.

To conquer this primal fear, the artist must be willing to marry the terrifying search into the unknown with a mystical appreciation, representing humanity’s highest possibility. He or she must do this with a Stoic acceptance of their fate: That no matter how much passion they expend in searching through the inner recesses of their own subconscious self, that they will never truly find their way back to the known, the acceptable and the norm. They will forever be outside of the fire circle of warmth. For to "know" is to create art that is knowable; to create a truly unique and meaningful body of work, the artist must work in the dark horror at the heart of the existential crisis.

How can one begin to access this place, however? Where can the dark channels leading into the human semi and subconscious be found and then overcome by the working artist?

For me, to attempt to delve into this subterranean region, I have followed a drawing practice that underpins all of my paintings, my artwork, and even my thought process: something as simple as blind contour drawings. Everything I create – be it visual, written or even on the philosophical plane – stems from these little sketches. The process of discovery through the constant repetition of this quick drawing process opens up new ways of seeing for me, flowering into an appreciation of the accident, of how disparate things are truly linked, of the uniqueness of each object within its particular moment in time, of the infinite possibility and impossibility of capturing the exact same object time and time again, and coming up with a different drawing in each instance.

This type of sketching represents a poor man’s mysticism. When I am at my pad, my gaze doesn’t drift from the object in front of me. My mind narrows to a singularity focused only on where my gaze meets the contour of the object; my eyes never glance at the page upon which I draw. It is in this simple refusal to look at the page where the image is captured, that drives my ego, my conscious "self" away from the act itself. It is a manner of removing my consciousness from creation, and delving into the deeper regions of my own being.

By looking only at the object and having my hand mimic the movement of my eyes over the object's contours, I engage a conversation directly between the object and the page. "I" recede, becoming nothing but a conduit. Through the practice of these blind contour drawings, I reach towards a more ephemeral truth, that of the object itself, and not the interaction of the object with myself, colored by my own conscious need to belong. Metaphorically, at least, the finished sketch becomes a representation of an absolute truth – something that exists outside of the sensual apparatus of the human mind, something existing in and of itself; the universe collapsed into a moment in time.

Truth, after all, lies only in the moment. When I execute these drawings, I am wedded to the world in which I am living – at the very moment that I am living it. There are days and even weeks when I have my sketchbook at my side at virtually all times, drawing everything from my family members to pipes in the bathroom, scenes across the water in Maine and New Hampshire, folded napkins, glasses of Scotch (and good ones, too) and whatever else in my field of vision has captured my fancy at that exact moment.

In a sad way, these little sketches become my personal expression of faith – faith not only in an absolute truth, but also in the human ability to yearn towards this truth, as expressed in the sightless line of a little drawing. Why sad? Because of course each drawing is hopelessly inadequate, yet it is all that I have – it is the only tenuous lifeline to some true, but ultimately unapproachable reality. To my fractured mind, the meditative quality of really looking at something, as I trace the interior and exterior contours of the object with my eyes, as I mimic this movement on the page, proffers me access to some unspoken place where line, time and belief coalesce.

In drawing anything, a mystical appreciation of the sameness of all things begins to emerge; a contour is a contour, whether it is tracing a face or a tree or a toilet. Here, the artist can begin to understand some mystical reality beyond words. In attempting to capture the same face a hundred or even a thousand times and never producing the same drawing twice, the draw-er can begin to grasp the impermanence of time and reality, the ephemeral nature of personality, the astounding and kaleidoscope manifestation of being; God Itself. Through drawing after drawing over the course of years, a worldview begins to emerge that at least allows for an absolute Truth – a place that exists in silence, far beyond, even, the necessary crisis of true creativity.

There is nothing that elucidates the uniqueness of every moment of existence for me – and the inimitable quality of every object or thought within each moment – as do these little sketches.

And herein lies to crux – how to transfer the evanescent bits of truth found in these quick sketches, in these moments of crisis, into a finished painting. For jotting notes do not make a poet; and a quick sketch, no matter how successful, does not create a body of art.

Perhaps the most important thing is that the artist accepts that they will never be a successful painter. In an art that attempts to plumb the depths of human experience, every work will be nothing more than a testament to what the artist can’t do, a scabrous production congealing over the wound of artistic dreams. To the artist themself, full of imaginings and ideas, the work will undoubtedly appear clunky, ill fitting, poorly technique’d; a painting will never be finished, so much as abandoned.

For myself, since the finished object will never be but a shadow of my desire, I must find meaning in the struggle, the striving, the yearning, this hopelessness, the crisis of the artistic process, which becomes the predominant underlying theme of my visual work. Here, in the hopeless search, the process of the blind contour sketches is congealed into a finished piece. To continue working, while attempting to base my work in the existential crisis of being, I must view each individual painting or drawing as just another desperate attempt, a single comma in some unending conversation with myself and the universe; another step along a road that, like a hallway in an Escher painting, leads nowhere, but keeps on going nonetheless.

When I stand in front of a blank canvas and can appreciate this definition of my process emotionally, that each of my works must have the word "study" before the title, then at least I can attain the slightest bit of artistic peace of mind. If I expect that I will create a "masterpiece," (Picasso’s "Guernica;" Goya’s "Black Paintings," DeKooning’s works between 1945-1959), then I become hopelessly lost in the labyrinthine world of product, and I cannot create.

Ultimately, the artist that fights against his or her own interior fear, his or her need to belong above all else, will not only find themselves in the minority a majority of the time, they will also be expressing what is most "human" about the human being. "Humanity," if we are ever to become truly so, must move beyond the primal fears within, to a place where the mystic search for an ultimate, unreachable truth defines the highest form of wisdom.

At our very best, contemporary artists can help point the way towards this higher sense of the human being, by devoting themselves to foraging at the frontier between the known and the unknown, and then expressing this search in their art.