Art as War (Part 6)

Art as War (Part 6)

So simply put the point of art is to distract us from worry and envy long enough to reconsider our position. It invites us to a transformative point we are able to come back from and re-enter our lives with a slightly adjusted, yet still new, mindset.

The effect of art is subtle in that way, especially in American culture where we often ingest so many fragmented forms of entertainment we rarely digest their merits. We consume real works of art in the midst of so much crap it is hard to tell what’s what.

Still the seeds of life are planted, often deep within our subconscious. Generally art works in the sphere of imagination and meaning, simply bypassing our reason and rationality. Though we don’t know what we experienced, we had an experience.

Some more studied in classical art history might encourage the rational investigation of a piece of art following its experience. To truly appreciate the piece, we need to understand more about it. Certainly true, but perhaps outside the realm of experience.

In other words, appreciating later does not change what happened. Something happened in the present, in the moment of experience with the art. Something was inserted, something adjusted, something nuanced toward the top.

That just is. Its merits already happened. We can learn more about the adjustment and what happened by learning more, studying the art, etc. But the essential effect of the art has happened, at least in the realm of the soul, where art dwells.

What exactly happened not even the artist can know. But there is nevertheless the clear sense that the artist is a teacher. No classroom, no here’s the take away I want you to have, but there is absolutely a discussion he starts.

The Birdman movie won Oscar for best picture and, like any great movie, caused some controversy. The ending is obscure, and can be taken a few ways. This, of course, is why it is a great ending. Because it doesn’t really end.

The movie goes right out with us. The conversation continues. Like Christ in the parables, we are left going “wait, what just happened?” The best teachers are asking the right questions. And perhaps art really is about pointing out the problems.  Not giving solutions. Generally art that tries to offer solutions comes off painfully pedantic and preachy. But, artists who work individually to be part of solutions they believe in present a beautiful picture of activism.

They, like a good teacher, sponsor the debates. Then, after school, they go do and support some of the things they really think work. That can be a powerful illustration. Certainly some will get annoyed at the artist with a cause thing.

But it’s worth it. It’s worth it to care. It’s worth it even to, in some ways, associate with or around your art. There is a line here, but the greats have always towed that line. The closer they get the more exciting, the more tangible the debates they host.

The irony is that the purpose of a piece is almost lost on the artist himself more than anyone else. There is an inevitableness for an artist to create. If asked why he is creating or “should” he create, the artist is almost incapable of answering.

There is just the existential certainty that being is better than non-being, and being in this case is doing this thing. Whether the art project is a “worthy cause” is outside the grasp of the artist and critic alike. Some pieces are simply statements of being.

Really art in its purest sense is being itself. Like the song of creation being pours forth, creating capacity, birthing out of the latent potential for life (the darkness). Life ultimately is about living, and living is a state of being-ness that defies description.

Art is the power of being, a vigilant “yes” to being, a gift which is beyond us. We can not and did not purchase being, it is free. It’s desires and dreams innate within us. Being causes us to will according to its own volition, again a process beyond us.

What dreams are implanted in our being we do not and did not cause, we discovered. Hindering them from the process of becoming is faithless, a violation of who we are and who we are supposed to be. Let them become. This is art! This is war.

Art as War (Part 5)

Art as War (Part 5)

" is so incredibly difficult for creatives. They are used to being fully engaged in the river, or in creating a flow in the river (or perhaps unblocking the river’s flow). When out of the river, there is a void of life, a lack of thrill."

Art as War (Part 4)

So the time must come for the artist to decide fundamentally what he wants. He must decide what he really wants to do with his art - NOT what kind of art he wants to make, but what impact he hopes it will leave. Intentionally unintentional.

In other words, the things you create have an impact on people. Now, of course, we can not control how people will experience that art (we can not know what experiences they will bring to interpret it), but we can control what we are trying to say.

This is not pedantic or coerced art. This is not us telling inspiration what to do. This is very, very high level work. It require some years of doing to survey others: how does this music effect you? What does it do for you? Why do you listen?

Connecting their experience with our desire is probably the goal here, but we design the experience. There is no doubt about it. That is our job. We make the calls. We deliberate over the colors and chords and words before they see them.

We do not ask their advice. We create. We can seek input, but we discern. We are responsible to the muse. We must take ownership of the piece, no matter how collaboratively it was created. For the movie director that is very collaborative.

Still, there is only one listed as The Director. Someone has to be the leader. Someone has to make the final calls. Someone has to take responsibility. Not just for commercial success, but for emotional impact. Where will this experience lead people?

It is an offering though. Remember, our artistic creations are offerings, ultimately to the Muse who inspired them. They are meant to be received there first. After that, we can not really know how a piece will connect with people. It is not for us to know.

And the reality is art is ridiculous. But that is what makes it powerful! Art is frivolous, impractical, nonsensical. At best it entertains. At worse it completely distracts. Still without it as Dostoevsky once said, we are left only with reality and political solutions.

Without art there is no imagination. The world becomes a very dark place. Chapter 7 of Notes from the Underground contain his “the most advantageous advantage” philosophy, noting the power of a man who acts out of his own volition.

Men who act from the inside out have a rare freedom. It is not independence as we think of it today. That mostly means detachment, aloofment, today’s “rationality.” What he is talking about is truly being free from cause and effect thinking.

Doing something to do it. That may be a guttural definition of art. Why a man does it, other than some internal drive to create, is a mystery, even to him. That’s the beauty, that’s the war cry of art. I seek to please no one here but the non-rational drive in me!

That is about the point the artist really starts to make art. The critic becomes a figment. Hipster celebrity and taste-making become a sideshow. The real stage is this live birth of something un-contained, something direct from the gods themselves.

As artist we are the mother, not the father. We are the carrier, but the Seed has divine origin. We become like Mary, overwhelmed by the Spirit and suddenly into an adventure unlike any other. The artist echoes, “Let it be.”

Of course, as "mother" we birth the baby. We have the labor pains. We are inconvenienced by discomfort. Like a mother we also prepare knowing that from the day that baby is born the goal will be someday to let it go, to send it off.

We are plagued by the inevitable tension of loving something so much that we can not keep to ourselves. It is completely ours for a while. It is completely dependent upon us for many years. But someday it will get a life of its own and do what it will.

In those days, we can not control it. Once out into the real world it creates its own life. We direct it. And, of course, for many years we speak directly into it, influencing its outcomes. But the point is that it becomes its own independent life.

That is both comforting and terrifying for most artists. “That piece is part of my soul, now the world will see my barred secrets and judge me.” Yes, like a parent, it is true. We will be judged by our kids. But also like a parent of an adult, we won’t.  

Art as War (Part 3)

So the tension of the artist will always be wanting people on one hand to receive his exposed, bared soul work and on the other wanting them to stay out. The intensely private nature of the initiation process bangs against going public in every way.

There is a word for this: FEAR. The artist is deeply (and wisely) afraid of bearing his soul to the world. A vision, after all, is like a baby. You don’t want everyone touching a baby. The artist learns to protect and keep others at bay with the best of them.

Some great emerging artists are so good at keeping others out not even their good friends or family really know about their creative gifts. They chalk it up, incorrectly, to humility, not wanting to appear arrogant or full of themselves. Who wants to hear someone talk about their selfish obsessions, especially when that person is unwilling to actually pursue that obsession all in. It becomes either a sob story or a strategy meeting on how to “follow your heart” or “chase your dreams.”

In an effort not to appear normal (a curse for artists, see Ennneagram 4’s), the artist avoids any disclosure of artistic pursuits till the work is near a perfected state. The dangerous problem: utter isolation is a trapped door that corrupts creativity.

Soon everyone else, instead of potential receivers of your artistic endeavors, become potential enemies to your process. You get locked away further and further. Some creatives have gotten so locked in they have never come back out.

Art in the end is collaboration. It is a collaboration of human experience. Only when receptive to the human needs around us does the creative process really work. Locked inside of ourselves we are locked outside of true creative inspiration.

That is the counter-intuitive logic of inspiration. It is not found gazing upon beauty. They get a room with a view and expect the words to come flowing. It doesn’t work like that. Inspiration comes looking honestly and brutally at suffering.

Of course part of the process is isolating, but always within that context of shared suffering. If I am not really part of the human experience of life I will have less and less to really contribute to the experience of art as healing.

Art is war, but it is also healing. Art is the salve on our collective soul. It somehow unifies and connects otherwise random, disconnected pieces of the world. Without art, there is no chance to dream in color, to imagine stories of infinite meaning.

“Reason is the organ of truth. Imagination is the organ of meaning.” Art relates our experience. Without it, the world is meaningless. Sounds overstated, almost arrogant. But from the Song of Creation till now it is true, art bears meaning.

We just have to believe in it. Getting artists to believe in the value of their creative projects is no small task. They often, to a fault, assume no necessity with their work. It is simply a nice ornamentation if desired, but it is probably not desired.

It starts with the artist desiring it - believing in the potential of the project to bring healing, hope, connection. As the artist visualizes that healing and hope it starts to attract the people who need it. It’s truly a beautiful process of the universe.

When the artist gets caught in strategic marketing plans they sometimes don’t get out. That work may be necessary, but focusing on the what is the primary concern of the artist. Our job is the what, not the how. Creative spirit flow!     

Art as War (Part 2)

Some will undoubtedly see art as compromise, escape from the brutal reality of true relief and development work. Can anything actually replace the fierce truth of holding the hands of those who are dying, forgotten and forsaken by their people?

Is anything as real as that? Perhaps not. And as immensely important as it is, the workers are few, and the harvest overwhelming. So the logic of pulling one off the line so to speak to pursue art seems more than mildly narcissistic and crude.

In the face of brutal reality how is pursuing artistic impulse a legitimate way to be “part of the solution/cure?” Artistic vision is by nature very isolating, very consuming, and very persistent. Once given credence, it all but devours one’s life.

But, if artistic vision is truly born in the cauldron of compassion, in the tensions of brutal truth and what could be, that vision can literally birth justice bearing fruit. The art literally bears the longing, the hope, the suffering, the pleading.

That sort of art carries with it, embodies, incarnates the very Spirit of God. It moves people beyond flimsy, mild intentions, or philanthropic charity. It profoundly messes with their vision of reality. It draws them into the suffering. It penetrates their comfort.

This vision of art as agitator, as literal voice of the voiceless, can be over-bearing, unseemly, aggressive, almost obtrusive, but it does not have to be. There is still style and tact; if executed well, the average person initially won’t know it is wrought with such. The real tension with artistic vision often comes in the marketing. In other words, creating a compelling, prophetic piece of art in one’s basement is one thing. It has merit in its own right. But how does one get an audience for such a piece of art?

We’d laugh to think of the Biblical prophets on the street corners today with no serious audience. In the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah the words of the prophets, though not always heeded, were heard all the way to the throne of the kings. In other words, the message had an audience. It may sound silly or unremarkable, but the difference between Jeremiah and the guy on the corner today may be context, or audience. One was called into a significant role, one was not really.

Can we think of making art without an audience? Can art be made in isolation of an audience? Will compelling art make a way for itself? Will it wriggle itself into a place where it can infect a group of people with holy discontent?

How can we free art to be an agent of change? How can we release it without being sucked into a system of selfish ambition that tends to favor things that are flattering to the system? Does ambition for our art to succeed necessarily taint the art?

Can art be experienced as more than promotion for the artist? Yes. Yes. Yes. If done well the art will take both artist in creating and audience in receiving well beyond the realm of cash flow. The business reality will be overshadowed by the eternal presence.

This, after all, is sort of the goal of art: to transport artist & audience beyond cause and effect, to transcend transaction, to on a soul level actually connect deeply to what is important and eternal. If not this, we have not art but mere temporary distraction.  

Art as War (Part 1)

So, most conscientious young people want to do something important with their life. In the face of earth’s horrible injustices, they are deeply aggravated, disturbed, and profoundly saddened. They know business as usual is a morally appalling option.

Such deeply feeling young people are susceptible to many conflicting philosophies offering to be “part of the solution.” There are currently 1.5 million NPO’s in the country, all doing things to help, all with remarkably different views of what help looks like.

So these zealous emotions to do something wonderful to help, while truly beautiful and benevolent, are uniquely perplexing. And while proposed solutions are rampant, social problems are in no short supply either, especially on the global scale.

Then we compare our domestic US problems to 95% of the world and ours can seem rather trivial. Still we innately know thinking globally does not excuse ignoring locally. If your head is not starting to hurt yet, I am failing to make the point: It’s overwhelming!

About now I love to think about international relief and development workers coming home to their middle class US neighborhoods. Do they possibly have anything left to offer their local community? What about their own families?

To what degree can we naively (though genuinely) propose to care about everyone in the world (I must quote Woody Allen in Annie Hall here1), yet we neglect the needs in our own home. Soon the bleeding heart has bled out and what’s left ain’t so pretty.

A burnt out social worker or relief worker may be one the most sarcastic people alive. They are rightly annoyed by the desperately shallow “first-world problems” demanding the attention of so many. Compared to emergency care work...what really compares?

So predictably the petty lethargy and self-obsession of the locals can be maddening. How many people around the world are in completely dire situations - starving, homeless, abused, neglected. Yet we fancy our problems worthy of absolute attention.2

How does the unfortunately conscientious person find a way to manage normal middle income America, where they collide with the dangerous trifecta of realized American values: security, comfort, and the pursuit of happiness (i.e., my happiness not yours)?

Some of our best don’t figure out how to balance this tension. They are forced to turn off the inquisitor within. They are forced to silence the inner-prophet. They eventually permit themselves to enjoy some of those comforts but not without a big helping of guilt.

This is where art enters. In the heart of one deeply wounded by the overwhelming suffering of so many, almost too wounded, a deal is struck. A way is discovered to focus the red hot heat of such compassion and indignation: the way of the artist!    

1 Annie Hall: Alvy, you're incapable of enjoying life, you know that? I mean you're like New York City. You're just this person. You're like this island unto yourself. Alvy Singer: I can't enjoy anything unless everybody is. If one guy is starving someplace, that puts a crimp in my evening.

2 The American marketing machine, in fact, is so good at occupying the consciousness of the people we can believe we are the only ones left on the planet.