What is Real? What is True? What has Meaning for our shared lives in community? Is there an Authority for any of these questions, or are we all on our own when we try to figure out how to make sense of our world? The ancient Greeks were onto these questions long before the fateful day when Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?”
Today we have a branch of philosophy which studies how we know things. It’s called epistemology. The word comes from the Greek words episteme and logos. Episteme can be translated as knowledge, understanding, or acquaintance, while logos is often translated as account, argument, or reason. Logos also means word, saying, speech, discourse, thought, proportion, ratio, and reckoning. In some strains of Greek thought, the Logos was the rational principle which governed and developed the universe. In early Christianity, the Christ was the Logos or Divine Word through which God created and ordered the universe.
Normally, in ordinary conversation, we don’t throw around these fifty cent words, but prefer instead the nickel and dime ones of our fast food conversations. “How was your day?” We answer, “Fine,” but don’t pull up the deeper words of our emotions to share with the ones we love the most. Eventually we come to a quiet acceptance of togetherness, but perhaps also an inherent loneliness also. The isolation of this Pandemic has cut us off from sharing with others, so now we may feel this inner pain more acutely.
I personally miss the brief give and takes between the random strangers whom I meet in the grocery store or at the coffee shop. Just the opportunity to compliment a stranger or to help an elderly shopper find a product makes me feel good. Likewise, if someone does the same for me, I also feel better about myself. Making connections gives us a sense of community and unity in this trying time.
If we put on a brave face, smile, and say, “I’m fine,” are we being Real, True, or merely hiding behind what society has determined is the appropriate response to this time and place in which we find ourselves? Artists find themselves in this position every single time they approach a blank canvas, a lump of clay or a block of stone. “Am I going to do what all the artists before me have also done, or will I look at this in a new light and make an entirely new expression?” When the first Cubist paintings went on exhibit in France in 1911 at the Salon of the Independents, the people who attended were outraged, for the artists had broken every rule of “good painting,” which the attendees could see first hand in the other exhibits.
Cubism broke the plane of the canvas into an overall fractured space, rather than an attempt to render a three dimensional subject on a flat surface. It presented multiple viewpoints of the objects at once, rather than a single view. Picasso and Braque challenged the accepted representation of art: does art have to represent the world as we see it? Do we instead carry the ability to disassemble reality and reassemble it in a way that’s not limited to the dimensions of the real world? These artists were groundbreaking because they actively deconstructed the real form to illustrate the chaotic and puzzling side of the real world. For cubists, artists aren’t just people who paint beautiful things, but people who give others the chance to think about the world they’re living in through artistic expression.
Traumatic events like September 11th and this Pandemic also “disassemble our reality” and may cause us to reject it outright, hide from it, deny its impact, or find a way to make sense of a fallen and broken world. We can either become wounded healers or we can become wounded people who keep on wounding others. Nothing can take away the losses we’ve suffered, but we can learn to make use of our grief to help others get to better places in their own lives.
Art often serves as therapy for traumatized persons, as does journaling. This is because both are physical means of expression and both require focused breathing. I find I can’t paint when I’m agitated, but if I do a little cleaning of my palette and preparing of my work area, I begin to calm down enough to concentrate. With writing, I like using old fashioned pen and ink on paper to let the good ideas flow, but I can also tap, tap on the iPad if I have a well conceived idea beforehand.
If we let the thoughts inside of us come up to the surface, we can become aware of them and deal with them. Sometimes we don’t like these painful images that arise, for they remind us of old trauma and grief, which may depress or anger us. We need to look these feelings in the face for what they are: emotions only, but they aren’t the definition of our eternal Truth. These are mere moments in time, not forever moments, unless we choose them to be. As a person living with chronic depression, I had to learn how to think positively and stay appropriately medicated, as well as to do the healthy self care behaviors to enhance my ability for an optimistic outlook on life. We can be survivors, not victims. If I ruminated on my sad thoughts or anxious feelings, I wouldn’t be able to take positive steps forward. Learning how to refocus my thoughts took time and practice, but the effort was worth it.
Art pushes our boundaries outward, so we are more resilient when we meet struggles in the world. If we struggle and fail on a painting, we still learn from our work some lessons to apply on the next one. Art is a series of building up of failures until you get competency surrounded. One day your hand, eye, heart, and mind all click into one circuit. Suddenly your art looks like you seem to know what you’re doing. It has a voice unique to you and begins to speak to the world beyond. This is the moment when your inner spirit and emotions are at work, for you have enough technical ability to get the meaning across.
How long does this take before your work takes on its own personality? We all have it from the beginning, for we each have our own unique insight into the world built up from our past experiences. The better question we ask is “when does our work look good?” At this point we’re asking, “Is it Beautiful, Technically Competent, Engaging, or Appealing?” Sometimes we’re asking, is it commercially viable, or will someone buy it? If the test of great art is someone will purchase it, Rembrandt’s later works and most of Van Gogh’s oeuvre don’t make the cut. Yet, history proves these are museum worthy paintings. This means we don’t need to concern ourselves with this question, but we shouldn’t quit our day job anytime soon.
A recent study found if a family has an annual income of $100,000, a child is twice as likely to become an artist, actor, musician or author than a would-be creative with a family income of $50,000. Raise the annual income to $1 million and $100,000, respectively, and the stakes become even higher, with members of the first household nearly 10 times more likely to choose a creative profession than those from the second. Overall, for every additional $10,000 in total income, or pre-tax earnings of immediate family members, a person is two percent more likely to enter a creative field. This is why we see so few persons of color in the art world today, for historically their art was not only disparaged in early American history, but today people of color have lower median incomes than whites, partly due to systemic racism resulting from inequalities in education, but also lack of entry into home ownership due to redlining.
Art is like ministry: we don’t do it to get rich. We do it to live our best life. We do it because we have a need to express the deeper voice which we hear in the depths of our hearts and mind. It isn’t the call of the world, but the mysterious calling of the Divine Word, which we remember from John 1:1-5, was “The Word Became Flesh:”
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
When we make art of any kind, we reassemble a new reality, for we proclaim we’re living in the power of the creating God. We know we aren’t a god, but we share God’s image and God’s work of creation. Because of this, we can rebuild the broken world, heal the broken people, and show love and compassion to all we meet. For many of us who grieve or judge ourselves harshly, maybe self compassion and self love is the first reconstruction of our world we should work on. If we aren’t painting or sculpting, we can bake pies or cookies, keep gardens, grow flowers or veggies, or do any other life giving endeavors.
Art gives us an safe space and an opportunity to build a new world. If it doesn’t hang together, we can always paint over it and try again. Or we can start afresh on a brand new canvas. How many of us wish we could wipe yesterday from our memories? Or come to tomorrow clean and new? We can have hope, as Jeremiah 29:11 reminds us:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
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