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:
and reaffirming the covenants between humankind and nature and between man and
with the ephemeral qualities of life and with our own mortality
significant times, places, and events
the gifts of life
individual potentialities and collective possibilities
the actual range of human possibilities
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
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.