Many of my recent posts have been informed by religious scholars. This is puzzling and somewhat unsettling to me, because I am not a religious person. Further, it may seem strange as a framework for discourse about art, since contemporary art is more often associated with entertainment than prayer.
On a basic level, this interest might be a form of exoticism, or even a colonizing practice – picking and choosing the formal qualities of arguments for my own ends. Since I don’t have a religious faith, I recognize the problematic nature of using these kinds of sources. In fact, the usefulness of these sources, for me, is not unlike the modernist use of non-European cultures as a resource to get ‘outside’ of themselves.
“This thirst for foreignness in order to find a self not mired in the habit of native conventions is germane to modernism,” says Dore Ashton in reference to Robert Motherwell’s painting. Likewise, the use of texts that pertain only laterally to art practice is a form of estrangement, of distance from myself and my own preconceptions. This has less to do with importing ideas across disciplinary boundaries than as a challenge to my own, highly secular and academically standard beliefs.
Since this blog and the studio journal that it is based on are reflective, contemplative practices, [see also gnōthi seauton (know thyself)] something like a religious / moral / ethical self-awareness seems pertinent to my thinking. The poet, Kenneth Rexroth on the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:
[T]he Meditations have a certain monotony – the monotony of the first phase of prayer, examination of conscience. ‘Have I kept my temper?’ ‘Have I given way to despair?’ ‘Have I accepted reality’s orders of the day?’ ‘Have I forgiven insult and injury?’ ‘Do I fear death and disaster?’ Epictetus [Marcus’ philosophical hero] preaches Stoic ataraxy, apathy, the unruffledness of the Buddhists, the acceptance without resentment of whatever may befall. Marcus struggles to obtain it in act. So Epictetus is arrogant. He knows. Marcus is humble. He tries and admits his failures.
Behind the cocksureness of the Stoic system, to which Marcus gives credal assent and whose argot he uses constantly, hides another, more profound life attitude, similar to what today we call existentialism, especially as we find it in its most anguished exponents – for instance Scheler. There is only ‘this’ – beginning and ending in oblivion. Its meaning is mystery. Only one thing is sometimes under my control: my response. I can accept or reject. If I accept whatever happens, I am at peace. Once I disagree with fact, I am doomed to agony and frustration. (Classics Revisited, pp. 114 – 115)
For me, a critical practice involves both an “examination of conscience” and some form of estrangement – going in-side and getting be-side one’s own point of view. Although I am an atheist, I don’t feel like this is any kind of rationalist triumph over superstition, but merely an acknowledgment that there is no metaphysical comfort on offer for the vicissitudes of life.
In the absence of a unifying system of cultural belief, contemporary artists are left to their own devices to cobble together values from an increasingly fragmented, self-destroying and polarized society. In many ways this is liberating as it allows for a wide range of options that are collaged according to individual inclination. I am personally more comfortable to be left to my own devices in most aspects of my life, especially my practice. In other ways this absence represents a loss of vocation, in the religious sense of a ‘calling’ to use one’s gifts in the service of society, family, friends, God.
A man of property may feel himself entitled to be rude, or careless, or untidy, and even fancy that his independence is in some way demonstrated or flattered by these exercises of it; but his servant may not indulge himself in such ways. I sometimes think that modern painting (in the sense of painting since the Academies) suffers a little from its freedom, bears its freedom less gracefully than medieval painting bore its servitude. Just as a really good domestic servant finds satisfaction in devising ingenious comforts for his employers, so the medieval painter exerted himself constantly, for interest or devotion, to devise new and more perfect forms of service for his employers’ and his own soul’s good. He took pains for their sake because it was in the perfection of his service that he found his own, his artist’s freedom. ( Daniel V. Thompson, The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, p. 53)