Why Art?

One time we organized a little Alternative Art Show here in our hometown, because we had resident artists whose work we rarely got to see; not due to lack of available space; certainly not, we soon found out, due to lack of interest. But in our pleasant little valley things like uncensored art shows are viewed with some suspicion, as if lines drawn on paper could somehow reach out & cause harm, bedevil our senses, corrupt our youth, or contribute to the imminent collapse of civilization. Perhaps, dare I say, provoke an original thought or two which we are ill-equipped to deal with. Quite the contrary, I say.

In contemplating this situation, I've encountered a stubborn tendency, particularly among our more established citizens, to divert any & all attempts to do anything a little differently or to try anything new. Where does this fear & resistance come from? I don't intend to speculate about the relative psychological health of the folks affected; my inclination is to assume the best of people: we do our work, we raise our kids, we try to get along as best we can. I don't think anyone's out to undermine the genuine, community-wide warmth that can be, & in fact has been engendered here through magnanimous group effort. So what's the deal?

We've Had A Hundred Years Of Psychotherapy & The World's Getting Worse is a fascinating, evocative book in which authors James Hillman & Michael Ventura address some of the related fears & taboos that are embedded in our culture. One section in particular has always stayed with me, & bears relevance to a discussion of aesthetics & value systems. Writing about, among other things, our trade war with Japan, Hillman makes a crucial point: "We believe we have lost out to them because they have better management techniques; because they plan farther ahead; they coordinate better (or) because they work like slaves. These economic reasons don't cut it. There is also an aesthetic reason for their guaranteed quality, which our puritan minds simply cannot even imagine. The Japanese are trained aesthetically early on & live in a culture devoted as much to the chrysanthemum (beauty) as to the sword (efficiency) - to use their symbols."

One has only to compare the hobbies of ordinary Japanese people - calligraphy, flower arrangement, dance gesture, paper cutting, origami - skills that take a trained eye & tasteful touch, to the perennial American pastimes of TV, video games & mall-shopping, to note the qualitative difference. "Even their language takes immense care. It's aesthetic training that gives them the economic edge, even if they get as drunk as we do & as tired."

The repercussions of our puritan heritage are more than economic. "And, if Freud's right that anatomy is destiny, then we all descend from the Mayflower. We are supposed to be sensually numb. That is the fundamental nature of puritan goodness. We are numb because we are anesthetized, without aesthetics, aesthetically unconscious, beauty repressed. Just look at our land - this continent's astonishing beauty - & then look at what we immigrants, Bibles in hand, priests & preachers in tow, have done to it. Not despoiling, not exploitation, not the profit motive; no, as a people we are void of beauty & devoted to ugliness."

Certainly there is much to fear in a society gone sensually dead. But first let's examine the fear of art itself. Not just the representation of a curve of breast, the gaping demon's mouth, or a collection of shattered images. The process of artistic creation is as bloody & fraught with peril as any biological birth. To truly delve into one's own psyche in order to engage the muse can be a very real struggle, grappling against entrenched habits of mind & shaking loose the very scaffolding of our personalities. Being blown open to a process which requires intense & intimate scrutiny inevitably exposes secrets both sacred and profane. It can be an intensely threatening experience, & yet, paradoxically, when exposed to the light of day, made concrete & three-dimensional, their power over us is released. When a young student of mine produced a disturbing anti-war collage, for instance, she cut right to the chase & the heart of her own nine-year-old anxieties. It was unsettling precisely because it was genuine. Her triumph was not only technical, but emotional & psychological. She faced the fear, which in some small but significant way revealed her courage.

This kind of endeavor & commitment is woefully undervalued in our society. (In fact, the child in question was initially censored at the local "established" art show, & begrudgingly accepted only after she lucidly demanded her right of expression.) Instead of rewarding the creative process, we belittle it, disregard it, & disqualify it. But doing so does not & cannot produce serenity. Serenity exists only in the eye of the storm.

As a philosophy of conduct, I highly recommend the artist's ability to draw from, & thereby transmute, fear. The same can be said of all our demons, all our deadly sins. Creative & aesthetic endeavor is not just a pleasant pastime, not just a learning process, but an indispensable safety valve whose importance goes unrecognized. As a society, we blithely cut school programs which emphasize the arts & music. In our zeal to remain competitive, we hammer & cajole our kids into bland, homogenized robots who are incapable of coping with the stresses our culture inflicts on them.

"Yet each of us knows that nothing so moves the soul as an aesthetic leap of the heart at the sight of a fox in the forest, of a lovely open face, the sound of a little melody. Sense, imagination, pleasure, beauty are what the soul longs for, knowing innately that these would be its cure."

If our puritan ancestry does preclude an aesthetic sense, then it behooves us, not to protect our kids from experiencing all kinds of art, but to immerse them in it. If our only aim is to instill our own prejudices, to keep them small-minded & dependent, then by all means shield them. But if our aim is to instill an aesthetic sense, to develop a unique appreciation for beauty, to become capable of thinking on their own, to be connected to their own rich sensuality, then we have a serious obligation to expose them to every diversity. Only then can they truly learn discernment for themselves. The alternative, at best, is boredom. The alternative, at worst, is to minimize our very humanness, to ultimately dissolve into psychological shreds that erupt into ugliness & violence. The alternative is TV, endless hours of it watched in the pretense of safety behind ever more barricaded walls.

All these issues compelled us to organize the Alternative Art Show. And incidentally, there was nothing in our show that was inappropriate for children to see; in fact we had a lot of families participate & visit us. People who came looking for "the controversial art" were, I'm afraid, disappointed. But we intentionally left the show open in order to accomodate those people who have too much respect for the arts & its pre-eminent function in society to be bothered with narrow definitions of propriety - or the artistic expressions of a nine-year-old girl. Our community, like many others, is one of great heart & great potential. At our show we were pleased to welcome half a dozen newcomers to our area, who were already curious about our resources & the dynamics of living here. There is plenty of energy out there ready & willing to be utilized in a variety of positive ways, as there is in every human synergy, including the burgeoning Internet community that spans the globe. But once you've experienced the intractable forces of resistance, enthusiasm quickly gives way to inertia. It's a death sentence to the vitality of community everywhere; is there resistance in you? I suggest that this is the place to begin breaking down those walls that keep us from realizing our potential. It's as simple as gluing pictures to a board...

We plainly cannot afford to overlook the need we have, as children, as people, as perceptual beings to develop the aesthetic sense. And rather than censor the image that may be repugnant to us, rather than restrict the activity that we may deem superfluous, rather than fear the expression that we don't understand, let us acknowledge the simple, inescapable fact of our diversity, as in Life itself, & in so doing transmute our demons & disagreements into a greater harmony.

~ via keller
this article is adapted from one which first appeared in
the Anderson Valley Advertiser, September, 1994


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