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Pearls from artists* # 357

Udaipur, India

Udaipur, India

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

The term hermeneutics has been used to describe the task of understanding and interpreting ideas and texts.  In a similar way, we need to set for ourselves the task of developing a hermeneutic of the visible, addressing the problem of how we understand and interpret what we see, not only in the classical images and art forms created by the various religious traditions, but in the ordinary images of people’s traditions, rites, and daily activities which are presented to us through the film-image.

Rudolph Arnheim, in his extensive work on visual perception, has shown that the dichotomy between seeing and thinking which runs through much of the Western tradition, is a  very problematic one.  In Visual Thinking, he contends that visual perception is integrally related to thought.  It is not the case, according to Arnheim, that the eyes present a kind of raw data to the mind which, in turn, processes it and refines it by thought.  Rather, those visual images are the shapers and bearers of thought.  Jan Gonda, in writing on the Vedic notion dhi, sometimes translated as “thought,” finds similarly that the semantic fields of the word in Vedic literature does not correspond as much to our words for “thinking” as it does to our notions of “insight,” “vision,” and “seeing.”  Suzanne Langer has also written of the integral relation of thought to the images we see in the “mind’s eye.”  The making of all of those images is the fundamental “imaginative” human activity.  One might add that it is the fundamental activity of the religious imagination as well.  She writes, “Images are, therefore, our readiest instruments for abstracting concepts from the tumbling streams of actual impressions.”            

Diana L. Eck in Darsan:  Seeing the Divine Image in India

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Pearls from artists* # 355

"The Champ," soft pastel on sandpaper, 26" x 20"

“The Champ,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26″ x 20″

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

True art provides us with truth in a manner analogous to science.  Its prophetic dimension – its knack for showing us the side of things that our interests blind us to – make it a source of knowledge, even though it is knowledge of a kind that instrumental reason has little time for.  The psychologists who revolutionized our understanding of human psychology in the earliest twentieth century drew on two principal sources to build their concepts:  the dream life of their patients and the great art of the past.  Without this recognition of the primacy of imagination, Freud and Jung could never have drawn their maps of the psyche.  Those who work for a better world would do well to follow their example and find the guiding patterns of life in the prophetic artistic works of the past and present.  Only art can act as a counter-weight to that uniquely modern mentality that, wherever it becomes the only game in town, seeks to persuade us that the proper goal of human beings is to contain, dissect, and control everything – that even the most persistent mysteries are just problems to be solved.

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action 

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Pearls from artists* # 349

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

If Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, and so many others were able  to create great artistic works, it was because they were able to pull off something few adults can find it in themselves to do:  they were able to suspend all final judgments about life and the universe in order to play… 

The spirit of work is concerned with self-preservation.  It evaluates concepts and ideas in terms of their practical value.  Building roads, raising walls, running elections, debating policies, educating the young – all of these are purposive actions ultimately aimed at upholding social structures, changing those structures, or promoting one’s place within society.  The spirit of work is the home of the ego, the part of us that has evolved to survive and thrive.  One of the conditions of the artistic creation seems to be the ability to move frame this frame of mind into the spirit of play.  As many artist have said in varying ways, the trick is to forget everything and create for the sake of creating.  No worthwhile play, of course, is without effort.  As the painstaking care Flaubert put into every line of his books makes clear, the spirit of play is sometimes the most exciting.  Nevertheless, art remains in essence a game, an activity undertaken for its own sake, no matter how difficult.  Like all games, it requires the establishment of a perimeter within which things that one might take very seriously in ordinary life are given only relative value.  The perimeter suspends all the conventional rules, allowing the artist to turn the world on its head and let the imagination roam freely. 

No sooner have we entered the spirit of play than we see things differently.    

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action 

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Pearls from artists* # 211

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

There is an ancient view that beauty is the object of a sensory rather than an intellectual delight, and that the senses must always be involved in appreciating it.  Hence, when the philosophy of art became conscious of itself at the beginning of the eighteenth century, it called itself ‘aesthetics,’ after the Greek aesthesis, sensation.  When Kant wrote that the beautiful is that which pleases immediately, and without concepts, he was providing a rich philosophical embellishment to this tradition of thinking.  Aquinas too seems to have endorsed the idea, defining the beautiful in the first part of the Summa as that which is pleasing to sight (pulchra sunt quae visa placent).  However, he modifies this statement in the second part, writing that ‘the beautiful relates only to sight and hearing of all the senses, since these are the most cognitive (maxime cognoscitive) among them.’   And this suggests, not only that he did not confine the study of beauty to the sense of sight, but that he was less concerned with the sensory impact of the beautiful than with its intellectual significance – even if it is a significance that can be appreciated only through seeing or hearing. 

Beauty:  A Very Short Introduction, by Roger Scruton

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Q: I have been always fascinated with the re-contexualizing power of Art and with the way some objects or even some concepts often gain a second life when they are “transduced” on a canvas or in a block of marble. So I would like to ask you if in your opinion, personal experience is an absolutely indespensable part of a creative process. Do you think that a creative process could be disconnected from direct experience?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Certainly personal experience is an indispensable and inseparable part of the creative process. For me art and life are one and I suspect that is true for most artists. When I look at each of my pastel paintings I can remember what was going on in my life at the time I made it. Each is a sort of veiled autobiography waiting to be decoded and in a way, each is also a time-capsule of the larger zeitgeist. It’s still a mystery how exactly this happens but all lived experience – what’s going on in the world, books I’m reading and thinking about, movies I’ve seen that have stayed with me, places I’ve visited, etc. – overtly and/or not so obviously, finds its way into the work. 

Life experience also explains why the work I do now is different from my work even five years ago.  In many ways I am not the same person.     

The inseparableness of art and life is one reason that travel is so important to my creative process.   Artists always seek new influences that will enrich and change our work.  To be an artist, indeed to be alive, is to never stop learning and growing.      

Comments are welcome!    

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