No More Secondhand Art: Awakening the Artist Within

No More Secondhand Art: Awakening the Artist Within

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by Peter London

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book is about using art as an instrument of personal transformation, enabling
us to move from an inherited to a chosen state of being. Peter London offers
inspiration and fresh ideas to artists, art students, and art teachers—as well
as to people who think they can't draw a straight line but want to explore the
joys of creative expression.


book is about using art as an instrument of personal transformation, enabling
us to move from an inherited to a chosen state of being. Peter London offers
inspiration and fresh ideas to artists, art students, and art teachers—as well
as to people who think they can't draw a straight line but want to explore the
joys of creative expression. Inside every person, he believes, there is an
original, creative self that has been covered over by secondhand ideas,
borrowed beliefs, and conditioned behavior. By freeing the capacity for visual
expression—a natural human language possessed by everyone—we can awaken and
release the full powers of that original self. Among the topics and exercises
included are:

  • How
    to increase the ability to visualize, fantasize, and dream
  • Obstacles
    to the creative encounter and what to do about them
  • Experimenting
    with art media as true mediators between imagination and expression
  • Making
    masks to reveal the hidden self
  • Painting
    with "forbidden" colors
  • Arranging
    found objects as metaphors for one's life

Product Details

Shambhala Publications, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt

1: Drawing from Within: Rediscovering the Transformative Powers of Art

Creative Enterprise as a Journey

breathtaking it is to start out on a journey into the unknown. How much easier,
more comfortable, and reassuring it is to stay where we are among familiar
faces and places. Even if where we presently are is not all that we would
prefer, it is at least known. That in itself is somehow comforting. To start
off in new directions—about to encounter who knows what, at risk of the way
becoming confused at any point—takes courage. Or, to use a better word, faith.
Faith that even when there are no external signs to indicate where and how we
should proceed, we are not yet lost.

out on that journey in the hope of uncovering sources of inner worth so that we
may step more lightly and confidently through life is our ultimate goal; our
means will be the creative act.

journey, an endless, surprising odyssey in which we may move from
naiveté to wisdom, from self-consciousness and awkwardness to grace, and
from superficial knowledge to profound wonder. The infinite menu of
possibilities that life continuously displays before us may be viewed as an
invitation to embark on this adventure through varied and unpredictable
terrain. The artistic process is more than a collection of crafted things; it
is more than the process of creating those things. It is the chance to
encounter dimensions of our inner being and to discover deep, rewarding
patterns of meaning.

comes a time in the forging of imagery when we run out of ideas, run thin on
the courage necessary to push beyond the known and ordinary. Most often at this
point of having exhausted our known complement of resources, we give up the
task and retreat to surer ground. But for those who stay in the creative arena
during this anxious period, who do not fall back, there sometimes comes a
sudden infusion of energy and clarity. It's as if we were suddenly joined by a
hidden ally that carries us past our usual insufficiencies and toward uncharted
heights and depths. The releasing of this secret sharer, seemingly unbounded by
constraints of time and space, is a major, perhaps
reward of the creative engagement. Making the acquaintance of this ally will be
a major purpose of our quest.

Beauty and Novelty

following a train of thought with me. Let's explore the suggestion that what we
currently take to be the purposes of art differ vastly from the original
intentions of the world's ancient and contemporary primal peoples. Suppose that
for these people the making of what we now call art actually constituted the
most important societal activity besides—or even before—one's basic everyday
tasks for the maintenance of life. And suppose these artifacts were made not,
as in our modern society, for mere decoration or for the gratification of
self-expression, but as powerful and instrumental vehicles of personal and
collective transformation. (By "transformation" I mean changing the
quality of life from its current condition to a preferred and elevated one.) If
art, then or now, were to be in the service of transforming the individual and
the society, it would serve in these ways:

  • Renewing
    and reaffirming the covenants between humankind and nature and between man and

  • Grappling
    with the ephemeral qualities of life and with our own mortality

  • Marking
    significant times, places, and events

  • Celebrating
    the gifts of life

  • Fulfilling
    individual potentialities and collective possibilities

  • Discovering
    the actual range of human possibilities

  • Awakening
    us to higher levels of consciousness

    imagine that nothing remained of these ancient people but the durable artifacts
    that were employed in these transformational practices. Being made of more
    perishable stuff, other and more revealing artifacts of these people—such as
    their beliefs, language, ceremonies, oral histories, ideas, values, and
    myths—would have all vanished with the last member of that civilization.
    Embedded though they once were in a complex of beliefs and intentions, only the
    bare artifacts remain: crowns, staffs, icons, maces, swords. These objects,
    these formed things now stripped bare of their mystic meanings and their
    designated purposes, are what we now uncover and examine.

    objects possess the poignancy of a bereft child—or rather, they attack our
    sense of well-being in the same way. We may not know the specific cause of the
    cry, but nonetheless we are moved by its heartrending sincerity and fullness of
    expression. We gaze at a knife in our hands, innocent of the terrible powers
    this same object possessed for its original owners. We pick up and admire the
    aesthetics of the blade's keen edge, a blade that may have passed through human
    hearts. We marvel at its symmetry, the fine, even cadence of its serrations,
    still intact after so many years, after so much use.

    aesthetic sensibilities are delighted by the mace, the crown, the staff in the
    showcase, and we cannot help our oblivion to the gods, goddesses, demons, and
    spirits who swarmed around these same objects in other times and other places.

    moved by form and finish, we declare these sacred instruments to be merely
    beautiful, and we give their makers a title from our own list of occupations:
    artists. No matter that the makers of these objects in no way resembled or
    thought of themselves as what we would call artists. No matter that the
    purposes these objects served in no way resemble the purposes we now make art
    serve. We call this work art and we call their makers artists, caring little
    that they called their work prayer and their makers shamans or devotees or
    historians or celebrants or healers or prophets.

    we live in a secular, mechanistic world, we take these artifacts equally to be
    secular undertakings and mechanical things. And we must ask ourselves: Can a
    people as devoid of spiritual imagination and experience as we are ever know
    about the original purposes of artifacts made by people for whom the whole
    universe was/is sacred?

    turn amulets into trinkets, powerful medicine into "collectibles,"
    holy myths into quaint folktales. We marvel at the care and dexterity, the
    tastefulness exhibited in the artifacts of ancient and primal artisans. We
    admire those qualities of coherence and finish in their manufacture, and we
    declare them beautiful. For us, craft is in the service of beauty, and beauty
    is one of the qualities of an a priori higher "good."

    the primal image-maker, craft was not in the service of beauty in and of
    itself, Instead, craft was in the service of power. The more carefully wrought
    the object was, the more powerfully the object would serve as an instrument of
    transformation and the more likely the gods would be inclined to honor the

    would the gods look more favorably upon things cared for and highly crafted?
    Here we must be speculative. A fair guess as to the thinking, not of the gods,
    but of those who believe they know the tastes of gods, is that the more
    carefully an object was made, the more the object resembled the ways of the
    gods themselves, and how they make things. How do gods make things? Just look
    around. Exquisitely. Every particle of the universe exquisitely fits in and to
    every other particle. Every leaf, stone, frog, fingernail and feather is
    intricately fashioned with not a thing left over, not a thing left out, and all
    with symmetry, delicacy, and power. This is the way of the gods; this is the
    way of the creation. Things made for the gods must employ these same criteria
    of goodness if they are going to be acceptable to these gods.

    as sunsets, sunflowers, the seasons, and babies are exact, albeit passing,
    harmonies that yield gracefully as they move from one phase into the next, so
    must each feature of the mask, crown, mace, cape, gesture, and beat be exact:
    full of grace and economy, purposeful, and fitted to what preceded it and what
    will follow. Beauty was not the intended outcome. Beauty was a natural
    by-product of craft diligently applied to serious things.

    of the original intentions of craft, we have taken the by-product of art,
    beauty, as the ultimate good of art. This misreading of the intention of art
    and the necessary care given to its formation, has, I believe, led us down a
    road full of sound and fury and yes, beauty—but what it all signifies is not
    at all certain.

    larger concepts of the authority of art held by primal people, as cited above,
    are not irretrievably lost to us today. These are not conceptions or practices
    belonging only to the distant past or far-off places. In fact, art as a search
    for personal and collective power and well-being is still held as central for
    most primal people, for Indigenous Americans as well as a small minority of the
    general community of artists. Jamake Highwater, in
    revealing book on the conceptions of reality and the functions of the arts held
    by Indigenous Americans, is worth quoting at length on this subject.

    Indigenous Americans operating out of their original worldview, the arts are
    sources of power with which to do real and important business.

    of the "art" of American Indians is not art in the formal Western
    sense at all, but the careful representation of the iconography given to a
    person during a vision quest, or given in the dreams of later life. These
    emblems and images are materialized and used in pottery, textile, paintings,
    and carvings. Whether tribally or individually owned, the power of these images
    is what makes them significant and not simply their aesthetic impact upon those
    who do not know or understand the metaphor underlying their imagery. It is
    here, in this emblematic and visionary realm, that all art of the world finally
    possesses its vividness and power. We have reconstructed the vision implicit in
    art as an image conforming to the norms of our cultures, mindless of the fact
    that we have thus transformed a ritualistic experience into something called
    "art" in an effort to convey an unspeakable revelation within the
    confines of our closed concept of reality. As a vision often divorced from its
    motivating power, decorative art is a dubious achievement.

    image, a dance step, a song may function from time to time as entertainment,
    but the root and full practice of the arts lies in the recognition that art is
    power, an instrument of communion between the self and all that is important,
    all that is sacred. Where we usually assign the origin of the artist's imagery
    to the vague direction of intuition or creative play, or even creative
    problem-solving, a deeper source is cited and sought after by the Indigenous
    American, as Highwater again indicates.

    impulse behind Indian images has little concern for particularization and
    appearance. Even when the visions of individuals provide the iconography for
    the design painted upon pottery or woven into textile, still the imagery is
    visionary rather than decorative or representational. Whether the paintings are
    the tribal icons of clans or the personally owned images of hunters,
    pottery-makers, or warriors, . . . in all of these instances the imagery
    remains spiritual in the purest sense of the term.

    painters such as Kandinsky grasped much of the otherness of primal art and
    attempted within the bounds of Western interpretation to reinfuse their work
    with a nearly lost visionary power. Yet this discussion of "image" in
    the primal mentality has perhaps underscored the probability that much of the
    art produced by so-called Neo-Primitivists was a superficial reflection of the
    surface of primal imagery (a kind of plagiarism of appearances), rather than a
    realization of its underlying reality as the evocation of human dream and memory.

    the history of European-based art, we too have a long tradition of believing
    there must be some extranatural source for the visions of artists. The divine
    Muses of the Greeks, divine inspirations, even episodes of divine madness have
    played a role in the myth of the artist throughout our own history. But it is
    childish and quaint to speak of such things today as sources for art. We
    believe we have better evidence with which to assign cause to the imagery
    portrayed by our artists. We claim this is a mechanistic universe, that all
    things and events owe their nature to various elaborations of things bumping
    into other things. Who knows? It may be so. But it is rather cold and lonely
    and haphazard out in the mechanistic conception of reality.

    cosmology of primal peoples is utterly different from this view. Theirs is not
    a dead, purposeless universe; the artist (and indeed everyone and everything
    else) is purposefully alive. As Highwater states,

    individual experience of images and ideas is for almost all Indians of the
    Americas a communion with the "mighty something" that is the abiding
    power of the cosmos. Much as all creative people depend upon intuition or
    inspiration for their life-supporting and life-affirming discoveries and
    imaginings, Indians depend upon some sort of personal contact with the
    ineffable for their most precious wisdom.

    the purpose of this wisdom? The purpose of these images, the essential function
    of art? First, it is to become personally enlightened, wise, and whole. Then,
    and as a consequence of the former function, the purpose of this wisdom, the
    purpose of art, is to make the community enlightened, wise, and whole.

    seeking after "wisdom" was the seeking after visions. Seeking after
    visions—isn't that what all artists do? It is, of course, but the source and
    functions of those visions are held to be very different things for us. For
    Indigenous Americans, Highwater says,

    the initiation from childhood to maturity, no experience is as important as the
    gaining of a spirit helper in a vision quest. Without it a person would surely
    fail in every major activity of life. So Indians do not usually await the
    appearance of some aspect of the
    spiritual guide], but actively seek it. This is the basis of the vision quest.

    the old days, a young person traveled to some remote area where it was known
    that many powers dwelled—often a mountaintop, or the shore of a remote lake,
    sometimes in the depths of a deep forest. There the youth remained for several
    days and nights, alone and in utter silence, fasting from both food and water,
    humbly naked except for a loincloth since for most Indians the body is all a
    person owns. . . .

    returning to his or her people, the youth would describe the experience to
    close friends and relations, reconstructing it and filling in gaps, adapting it
    to the mythic norms of the culture. Often the vision, the songs, and the images
    given to the neophyte were kept secret for a lifetime, until, in old age, they
    were passed along to a deserving apprentice or to someone who was luckless
    enough not to have ever experienced a vision of his or her own. Even today
    successful visions support people for their entire lives. It is a power upon
    which they can call for guidance and courage.

    need not hold to the Indian cosmology if that is inconsistent with our own. We
    needn't go off into the forests and wait for signs and voices in order to
    transpose the function of art from decoration and the pursuit of only beauty to
    art as the pursuit of empowerment, wisdom, and wholeness. Empowerment, wisdom,
    and wholeness are not intrinsic only to Indian views of reality and practice.
    These are values which we hold just as dear, if not sacred. Why not make them
    the primary purposes of our art? Why can't we have both decoration and wisdom,
    beauty and wholeness?

    Zinker, an artist and therapist, in his book
    Process in


    is prayer—not the vulgarized notations handed down to us in the scriptures,
    but a fresh vital discovery of one's own special presence in the world. Marc
    Chagall was once asked If he attended a synagogue; he answered that his work is

    the process of making anything, a person not only illuminates and illustrates
    his inner life, but moves beyond personal expression to make something which
    stands by itself. The work acquires its own internal validity, its own
    integrity. It is in this process of making something which stands on its own
    integral structure that the creator contacts a concrete reality outside his
    subjective life and moves into the realm of the transcendent.

    current conceptions of what art is and what it does seem such pale dilutions of
    what could be. Perhaps we have misread the signs. Perhaps we are heading off
    into territory that, although picturesque, offers little other than

    a result we have millions of earnest people in thousands of schools scrubbing
    away, rubbing, squeezing, madly polishing things in the hopes of forming the
    "beautiful thing." Most do not. Some diligent, gifted few do end up
    making beautiful things to grace homes and offices, and have their moment of
    glory. But I suspect many such artisans eventually realize that the goal they
    so desperately sought and paid such a high price for rings hollow. If it has
    been mere beauty they sought, merely the well-formed thing, a certain vague
    sense of incompleteness pervades their sense of self. I think the same can be
    said about those who seek merely the novel thing. Beauty and novelty alike
    provide the maker and the receiver with an immediate shock and reward to the
    senses. But then what? What is left to muse upon, to grow with, to satisfy the
    deeper needs of the spirit?

    what of all those who toil after beauty and novelty and fail to achieve even
    this? Their fate seems to be to persist in throwing themselves again and again
    into the same shallow enterprise. They take class after class, stare at bevies
    of naked models, piles of glass vases stuffed with meadows of silk and real
    flowers. They drag themselves out in all weather to catch that touching light
    as it glints on crests of waves, pouting waifs' cheeks, dew-moistened poppies.
    They worry over foreshortenings of legs and noses. They read and reread
    Jansen's history of art, staying up half the night to get the dates, names, and
    styles to align themselves in proper order. All this in the service of
    preparing themselves to make beautiful things, unique things.

    trophy for all this labor? Some nice-looking objects, some not so nice. Could
    this possibly be what it is all about?

    art is much more than beauty and novelty, if it is truly to be a source of
    renewal, a celebration of life, a means of awakening, we have to start
    rethinking the whole creative enterprise.

  • Meet the Author

    Peter London—painter, author, art educator, and art therapist—has taught the approach presented in this and other books to thousands of students, ranging from teens to octogenarians, from "art phobics" to professional artists. Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and a 2002 Distinguished Fellow at the National Art Education Association, he lives in Fairhaven, Massachusetts.

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    No More Secondhand Art 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
    Richard_Szponder More than 1 year ago
    In Peter London's No More Secondhand Art: Awakening The Artist Within, he states, "We have learned to be embarrassed by our efforts. We have learned to feel so inept and disenfranchised from our own visual expressions that we simply cease doing it altogether." As a society, we have lost touch with our creative essence, a part of us that emerges from our most spiritual and pure existence. Our inner critic hisses at us as we try something new, some form of creative expression, and we shut down our inherent spiritual nature, a mechanism that allows us to bring magnificent creativity into the world while at the same time healing our souls. Critical to London's examination is the creative process as a journey. So often, we are wrapped up in the end product, in production and efficiency, and we forget to enjoy the journey along the way. London would argue that creativity and artistic expression are about the journey. What results as an end product is simply the culmination of the most important part of the experience. Through well-defined strategies, London encourages his readers to step outside of the normal way of viewing the world and to see things in a new light. Let the mind guide the hand, he advises, as you allow your visual imagination to guide you in artistic endeavors. Too often, we look too structurally or literally and try to reproduce exactly what we see. London suggests we relax and play, he says lighten up and lose yourself in the creative process. Fascinating is London's take on abstractionism versus realism. He explains, "I would have you consider the view that all art is abstract as much as all art is representational." Although we make look at a realistic piece of art and interpret it as exact imagery, it is, in fact, an abstract representation of how a particular image inspired and moved the artist. Also, he explains, abstract art can be representative of actual feelings, emotions, and objects. This section of the book is a good summation of the entire work: Think differently about artistic creativity, and you can produce unimaginable and beautiful works of art. The "creative encounters" London describes are actual exercises he has designed that exemplify the concepts in the first half of the book. His exercises may seem strange to artists taught through traditional methods and include everything from painting with your eyes closed to designing and using masks to exploring the yin and yang in art by imitating both male and female forces during the creative process. London prefers the term "media" to the use of the term "art supplies." "Media are those things that stand between imagination and expression, between the mind and the act, the hand and the canvas." By approaching art and creativity from a spiritual, meditative, and thoughtful realm, London believes what will ultimately result is the production of truly inspired original works of creative expression.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago