My work is my most social act. My art is the way I can talk to you.
John August Swanson
In exploring the place of the artist—my place—in our diverse culture, I found that traditional societies have very different attitudes about artists and creativity. I am attracted to those attitudes and feel they provide a more meaningful role for artists than does our society. I feel I can learn from them to formulate my own place as an artist. Following are some thoughts about what I am trying to do with my art and a glance at sources of inspiration important to me.
The images I make are not for “art’s sake,” nor are they for pure self expression. I want to speak to you in everyday terms as if you were sitting here beside me. I pull from old roots to make a new thing that I hope will catch some of the light of our archetypal beacons. I try to make accessible and reaffirm certain values—caring for each other, acting as peacemakers, or something as simple as listening to someone who needs to be heard. These values are all around us, are part of us, and I want to tell their stories. When we make music together, or walk in the country—or in a great procession together—we are living parables from the Bible and history. I want to affirm the solitary and mundane acts as well. The woman who irons her family’s clothes has as much dignity and worth as the statesman.
Certain images, certain traditions, have stayed with me throughout my life. When I was very young, a visit to the circus was my reward for being good. I’ve always followed the circus—at home and in distant places. The whole beautiful, tight, discipline is marvelous—but it has been the clown that has always been most important to me. He is the distiller of human experience—of our foibles, joys and sorrows. He is the rebel in us—standing up to the established order. When he trips and falls he shows us how to get up from the dust and join the parade. We see ourselves in his foolishness and can laugh at the self image he flashes before us. He knows the secrets of our interior landscape. He is man’s shadow.
In the Balinese shadow play, the clowns, not the heroes, are the most popular and important characters. They act as interpreters—speaking Balinese rather than the ancient court language, Kawi, which is spoken by the rest of the characters. They make outrageous jokes, indulge in raucous slapstick, and often incorporate local gossip into the dialogue of the play. The chief clown of the right (the side of good) is also the son of Tintiya, the Original God, and possesses magical powers which he uses to aid the hero. The shadow play is a vehicle for the people to see stories from their religious epics come alive. It is, therefore, the most powerful force for education about their culture and religion. The puppeteer is an ordained priest, scholar, mystic, spiritual teacher, and artist. The clowns are his bridge from the unseen reality to the audience. In Germanic, Celtic, Native American, and African myths, there are many clown figures. In Christianity, St. Francis fits this tradition—he was known as God’s fool.
There is a saying in Bali. We have no art, we do everything as well as we can. The Balinese are not attached to their work, and it doesn’t matter to them when the glorious cremation towers, that have taken months of communal effort to make, are destroyed in seconds by the funeral pyre. All the attendant banners, paintings, carvings, music and dance were made as an oblation. That was the important thing. Bali is a Hindu culture and there, as in India, the cradle of Hinduism, there is no work for “Art.” Art is part of life, of one’s religion and culture, of one’s very being. The Bhagavad-Gita, one of the sacred texts of Hinduism, tells us, Work for the sake of work alone –with your heart fixed on God –and without attachment to the rewards of the work. In these countries, musicians and dancers offer their work to God before beginning any performance.
In traditional societies and in ancient times in the West, the artist might be a shaman, a teacher, a healer, and priest who led his people through their rite of passage. Though village and temple art is usually anonymous, the message it gives is understood by the community. The telling and retelling of sacred storied by visual means educates, puts people in contact with their culture, and brings them the wisdom, strength and comfort of their ancestors. It seems to me that my way of working is closer to the role of the artist in a traditional society. I want to speak of the exaltation we feel when we sing together. I want to show the things that bring us together, not that make us different. In our contemporary Western Society, the success of an artist is often based on technical skill, individualism, and commercial success. With these values being the most important, artists can no longer be anchored to God or their community.
When the spires of medieval cathedrals dominated the landscape of Europe, they, too, were meant for the people who lived in their shadow. The great stained-glass windows told familiar stories, and the sculpture was of familiar beloved figures. Local villagers had made the glass, the carvings—the whole splendid structure. The cathedral was their offering–the dwelling place of their God–and they felt at home there. Later, in the 18th century, when the palaces of monarchs defined political territory and the power of individual, they were the tallest structures on the horizon. The common people who lived outside their gates could no longer participate in the same way. The concept of “art for art’s sake” was born and the visual arts became the property of the wealthy. Joseph Campbell said that you can tell what is most important in a culture bay the kind of structure that is the tallest. First it was the cathedral, then the palaces of individual political power, and now it is the office building. Perhaps Simon Rodia (whom I greatly admire) knew this when he built the Watts Towers –those soaring, glorious structures of broken plates and glass on the outskirts of Los Angeles. When he was asked why he had made them, he replied, I wanted to make something big on the landscape. After he completed the towers he moves away and never saw them again. Simon was not attached to his work.
Images I have seen in Medieval and Persian miniatures –in Byzantine art and Russian icons –have been like beacons to me. The work of the great Mexican muralists who illustrate the historical struggles of their people have brought me closer to myself and my own work. Making art has helped me with the changes and growth –the rites of passage –in my own life. When I reach a sort of transcendental fruition in my work I realize the images and ideas I have struggled with are not mine alone –but common to all humanity. When people see my work and can relate to it their own struggle and growth, then I am very happy.
Ideas from a conversation with Jan Steward, Co-author with Corita Kent of Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit