Chapter One The SPiritual Service of Art
Utility is the great idol of the age to which all powers must do service and all talents swear allegiance. In these clumsy scales the spiritual service of art has no weight. Deprived of all encouragement, true art flees from the noisy mart of our time.
Friedrich Schiller, On The Aesthetic Education of Mankind, 1793
The Mystery of Art and the Mystery of our Humanity
From pre-historic times, human beings have made art. And yet, there is no simple answer to the question:
What is art for? Why do human beings create and value art?
In this sense, art is a mystery.
Likewise, there is no simple answer to the question:
What is human life for? What is the meaning and purpose of human life?
In this sense, human life is a mystery.
The mystery of art and the mystery of our humanity may appear to be separate, but are they? Might they be two sides of one mystery?
What Is Life For? What is Art For?
Some forty years ago I read Saul Bellow’s Nobel Prize lecture where the following passage caught my attention:
The intelligent public is… waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from science. Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are and what this life is for.
Saul Bellow, Nobel Prize Lecture, 1976
About ten years later, I read Suzi Gablik’s book, Has Modernism Failed, in which the following sentence stood out:
In the era of pluralism, when there are no longer limits to what we can imagine or produce, very few people, as far as I know, have a real sense of what our art is for?
Suzi Gablik, Has Modernism Failed, 1985
Since I had encountered Bellows and Gablik views separately, my interest in their thinking was initially also independent of each other. Over time, however, I came to see a possible connection between their views. What fascinated me most was the juxtaposition of their two questions:
What is life for? What is art for?
To this day, I continue to be deeply moved by Saul Bellow’s description of the “painful longing” in many people for a more coherent and comprehensive understanding of “what life is for?” This pain and longing for meaning seems to have only grown and intensified in the ensuing years. The question remains with us today whether theology, philosophy, social theory and science can provide us with a deeper insight into the meaning and purpose of human life. His view that art has a special contribution to make in serving this deeper human need may be affirming and inspiring for some, but will seem pretentious and unrealistic to others.
When I turn to Suzi Gablik, at first I feel she affirms my own experience, and surely that of many others , that the contemporary art world rarely speaks to the deeper currents of our humanity. At the same time, given the central place of art throughout human history, it is hard to believe that no one today has a deeper insight into why human beings make and value art. While I am troubled by the apparent inadequacy of contemporary art to speak to our deeper questions and aspiration, I remain optimistic that art has the potential to shed light on the question: “what is life for?”
By the time I was fifteen--long before I read Saul Bellow or Suzi Gablik--I was dimly aware that in addition to my natural inclination to draw, paint and sculpt, I was naturally inclined to think and write about art and its role in human life. By the time I encountered Saul Bellows question, “what is life for?” and Suzi Gablik's question, “what is art for?” I was inwardly disposed to embrace them as speaking to two sides of myself. Ever since, I have given time and effort to contemplating and writing about the spiritual service of art as much as to sculpting, painting and drawing.
As one human being among some 7 billion, I am gripped by the ever-present mystery of human life, and how little we understand the deeper meaning and purpose of our daily lives. It seems to me that the demands of our time ask us to deepen and expand ourselves beyond what we think is the scope of human reality. Surely, there is so much we have yet to see and understand.
As an artist, I am gripped by the mystery of art, and how little I, or anyone, understands the deeper meaning and purpose of art. I enter my studio each day to meet this mystery in anticipation of what the worlds of color and form will reveal to me. However, I strive to deepen my experience and understanding of art, in large part, because I know it can speak to the meaning and purpose of my human life. All my efforts as an artist, teacher and writer, including the writing of this book, originate in the connection between these two questions: what is life for, and what is art for,.
Can we know “what art is for,” if we do not know “what life is for?” Conversely, can art tell us “what life is for,” if we do not know “what art is for”?
After many years of living with them, these two questions have become one question as they complement and complete each other. Their inherent complementarity is the starting point for this book:
If we would fathom the mystery of art, we must plumb the depths of our humanity. If we would fathom the mystery of our humanity, we must plumb the depths of art.