Thursday, December 1, 2011

And What Is The Purpose of Art?

Zen & Now 24"x30" Mixed Media on Canvas
My daughter asked me how the "hundred layer painting" was doing a while back.  When she was home in the early fall she had observed me creating painting after painting on the same canvas.  Nothing seemed to hit the mark for me.  I kept thinking something "nicer" might be just around the corner, something that pleased me more, and so I worked on, painting over, rubbing off.  The heavy canvas never protested.  It stood stoically, quietly accepting image after image.  Some days I told myself it was about process, learning to let go, to not be attached to outcomes.  Some days I told myself I was a fool and a liar.  But every morning I got up and worked again.  I was like Sisyphus, rolling a painting uphill.

It was interesting to work day after day and have nothing to show for it.   It was good for a goal oriented monkey like me.  I could feel frustration rise, disappointment crest and disappear.  I could feel hope tugging at the corners of my mouth as something promising looked to be materializing. But then, no, false alarm, a wet rag in hand, I watched tears of water rolling down the fresh paint. And the ever onward, marching soldiers of thought kept me company, sometimes dour and mean spirited and sometimes upward looking and encouraging.

In a strange way it was like a puzzle that needed solving.  I was wrestling with abstract composition on this landscape shaped canvas.  In the end I never really felt like I solved the puzzle but was reasonably happy to stop where I did.  No knives came out, no canvases were flung into far corners of the garden.

I am always just as interested in what the mind is doing, as in what the paint is doing.  For me the way I work, how that process shakes down is like a little home movie.   How can I  reach down into the inner landscape and excavate something, something raw and real, thats the little koan that calls to my curious self.  To understand the "how" in some way seems important to me, like I might crack some code.  Or is it always a matter of groping around in the dark?  Always down a different corridor, bumping into different walls?

I am reading a fabulous book right now called "No More Secondhand Art" subtitled "Awakening The Artist Within" by Peter London.  His premise is that in the modern world we create art for the wrong reasons.  But here, I will let him speak for himself, instead of stand in danger of misrepresenting him:  "The making and teaching of much art today is a fraudulent affair, devoid of large, deep purposes.  Art today seems primarily in the service of decoration, innovation, or self-expression.  At the same time, we seem to have lost contact with the earlier, more profound functions of art, which have always had to do with personal and collective empowerment, personal growth, communion with this world, and the search for what lies beneath and above this world."  His premise is that this was the original function of art and that somehow we have become lost, that we have mistaken the product (beauty) with the intent and aim of the art.  For me, this resonates so deeply.  Yes, this is what I am trying to do but somewhere along the way I get confused and think it's about making "the pretty thing."  Someone has now put a finger on why this isn't working for me.

London suggests this is what we need to do: " In order for us to engage in image making with the fullness of power that this primary act of creation has to offer, we must remove the barrier that otherwise keeps us at a harmless distance from any authentic creative encounter.  The barrier may be characterized as a densely woven thicket of everything we have ever been told about art.  If we are to engage in the act of creation directly and fully, we must set aside all that is secondhand news and bear witness to our direct encounter with the world as if for the first time."

And for fear that I might type his whole book into this blog post, I will end with his comment on the 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.... If 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."  And really the aim of art and spiritual practice, well it sounds like pretty much the same thing when I read London's words.  Art, practice, meditation,  really we're traveling the same parallel roads, don't you think?  Paint brush, meditation cushion, walk, sit, run a brush across a canvas....


  1. Painting for the benefit of all beings - hard to think of a nicer motive than that. Peter London, eh? I like this guy.

  2. nicely put, David, "painting for the benefit of all beings"! He is worth a read. I think not only does he revolutionize the way we make art, but the way we look at art, current and past.

  3. Very thought-provoking... "...the ever onward, marching soldiers of thought." :)

    I like the parallel of art/creativity and the "art of awakening" - with both coming from a sense of "seeing the world as if for the first time through direct experience" - seeing the canvas of life with a sense of openness and curiosity; seeing ourselves that way too... It seems when art comes from that place within, without agenda, it is more authentic, and therefore more powerful.

  4. the parallel does work, doesn't it? Yes, as in the direct, bare experience, for sure and so many other aspects of what London says too. I love it when things fit together in this way, in this unified whole.

  5. I have read a book by PL. Of course, he is writing it from the perspective of a meditatior and Buddhist i think.

    I have always felt my art, be it writing or painting is parallel to an intense spiritual journey. But for me, the journey is one of self exploration. if the expression of that journey resonates with someone that's cool.

    I dont think I could intentionally make the community wise and whole however. That still sounds like some sort of agenda to me.

    Love your painting shown here. Is this the layers after layers piece???

  6. Love your work! I am a student of Buddhism as well - your work really speaks to me! I will check out your etsy shop and follow you as well. Glad to have discovered you - via Carole Reid's site. All the best

  7. The cover of my 'No More Secondhand Art' is in shreds...held together with tape. This book has been my studio companion for years. I have been opened by the 'creative encounters' alone and in the company of small groups. Thank you for these quotes and reminders of Peter London's fine books.

  8. thank you for this post - I love your journey with the painting of 'a hundred layers' - it really resonates with me - I like some of what Peter London says, but I also believe that the intimacy of the 'art practice' is personal to each of us and only the 'doing' of it can it tell us what it is to us alone - our journeys may have parallels, but is also very different to each of us - I love this painting - it's so alive xo

  9. suki - it's interesting about London, he never actually comes out and uses the B word, but so much has that ring. I agree, I think it would be presumptuous to set out to make the community wise. But I certainly think you share your wisdom on your blog and in your art.

    Jane - lovely to meet a fellow traveler! it is fun to follow those threads from blog to blog.

    Blue Sky - I am looking forward to the creative encounters! I have read some of them but haven't done any yet. I expect in time my copy will be thumbed and worn like yours.

    Jeane - yes, that rings true, "the intimacy of art practice" the personal nature of each person's journey. And your art for me, speaks of the depth of your journey. And you share your wisdom so freely when you share your process.

  10. I really like your 100-layer painting, Carole! I love the patina you get by adding and removing layers upon layers of paint— just like the patina life gives all of us. But I don't believe in second-hand art. We each have our own energetic expression. Our personal foibles make us and our art unique. I believe in embracing them rather than struggling to root them out. One of my numerous foibles is that I just can't do decorative. I want the art viewer to dig deep for personal meaning and maybe find some beauty there (and sigh, this is something I really have no control over). So I just paint.

    Your post is such a treasure-trove of ideas! We could commune for months about these. It will be fun to read London. I ordered the book just now.

  11. Hello Kris - always love your thoughtful input. It's interesting when London talks about secondhand art, his first example is of academics who have all the technique down and can easily emulate past masters but their work lacks the underlying feeling that these artists were loved for.

    I totally agree, in so many aspects of our art we have no control over what we produce, a lot like life really! I'll be interested to hear how you like the book!

  12. Your 100 layers lead us gently and inquiringly into Pete London's very wise meditation on the purpose of art, Carole..."personal and collective empowerment, personal growth, communion with this world," the sums up very neatly how I've come to regard the role of art as well. And there is so much of practice in art--I find this true more and more as I practice. :o) There is coming to be no separation between art and practice. I think ultimately art is about sharing our stories and wisdom gleaned along the way. I am adding London's book to my must-read list. As always, so much food for thought here! Happy Weekend ((HUGS))

  13. Me, too Tracy, this spiritual approach to art and the fact that it becomes another aspect of practice, this is how art has emerged for me as well. London describes it so eloquently. And he has all these creative encounters to try as well. I think you will have fun with this book.

    A hug back! And the lovely Norway must look quintessentially Christmas right about now!?

  14. Oooo la la on the 100 layers...scrumptious and well worth the restraint on going for the knife.

    When you got to London and No More Second Hand Art I was so THERE. I have valued his world/art view since he published and I took a grand weekend seminar/workshop with him which ended with him coming to visit my studio...thats when my studio was in the **former** high security lock up ward for women in an historic landmark building which had been both a merchant marine hospital and a psych hospital in two of its previous incarnations....ahhh...but I digress...

    HOW GRAND!!!! That you have shared his wisdom here...Thanks...and LOVE the layers.
    yay you!

  15. That would have been great to do a workshop with PL and to have him visit your studio as well. Yes I am loving the book and have his next book (Drawing Closer To Nature) on my list of must reads.

  16. Thanks for the introduction to his work. I will put it on my list of books to buy and then maybe some wonderful stuff will come of it. It is always the goal of the artist to represent something deep from inside but sometimes the "outside" appeal takes hold and we "perform" I think rather than commune. You are on the right path, it seems. Meditate, brush, etc.

  17. Teri - yes, well said, this is the challenge I think. And I find it takes a lot of time to just get into the space to commune and lots of patience to just muck about without expectation, to just explore. I think you will enjoy the book, he has such an amazing way of explaining things.

  18. I couldn't agree more with the London quote. So much of my artist practice is thinking about the art object as a small "arena" to try out ideas/ ways of being in life. This is tough stuff to execute and I am an infant in this practice seems worthy endeavor. XO.