The power of art is in its potential to move us in some way – whether to tears, laughter, or simply silence. But all too often we have become accustomed to seeing its role as little more than decoration or – at best – as a vehicle for innovation and self-expression.
There was a time, however, when art constituted one of the most important of societal activities. It was used to mark significant times, places and events – a means of fulfilling individual and collective potentialities and of awakening higher levels of consciousness.
The objects made to accompany those rituals had to be full of grace and economy – not for the sake of beauty, but in the service of power. The more carefully wrought the object was, the more powerfully it would serve as an instrument of transformation and the more likely that the gods would be pleased.
Those artefacts (a ritual mace, a knife, sword or crown, for example) seen today, still embody that same poignant ‘something’ that they held for their makers. We may not know exactly what it is that causes us to be moved by them, but we can sense the sincerity and fullness of expression that they represent. We find them beautiful, and we see the people who made them as artists. But they themselves didn’t have any such concept of themselves or their work. What we see as art they called prayer. And those whom we think of as artists were shamans, celebrants, healers and prophets.
To reclaim that perspective and the power that it holds, we must question everything that we have ever been told about art and engage in a direct encounter with the world as if for the first time. We have to put aside – as far as we can – the memory of every book we have read about art, every television documentary, and even every blockbuster retrospective exhibition. Because all they really offer us are stories, written by people who themselves have heard other people’s stories. They may well be interesting, but they should not be taken as the truth.
And all too often this second-hand ‘knowledge’ gets in the way of us entering into a full creative engagement as a means of revealing the underlying psychological and spiritual conditions of our relationship with the world.
This quality of engagement, this searching for meaning, is an essential prerequisite if art is to be an instrument of communion with all that is important, all that is sacred. It then becomes an expression of ‘the uniquely human quest for meaning in a possibly meaningless universe’ as Peter London has so poignantly put it – a search for metaphors through which to present our own unique interpretation of the world.
It represents a willingness to accept the challenge of contributing to human history by telling one’s own story. And that requires nothing less than to embark on a journey into the unknown, trusting – even when there are no external signs to indicate where we are or how to proceed – that we are not in fact, lost.
To operate fully in this creative arena it is essential that we learn to claim our work as our own. If we allow ourselves to be led by anyone else’s ideas and opinions, even when they might quite possibly be ‘right’, we can find ourselves knowing the answers before we even know how to shape the questions. And this need to shape our own questions occurs precisely at the boundary between all that is known and all that is yet to be known. It is in this humble state of mind that we rearrange what we already do know into new configurations, enter into the realm of creative play and allow for the discovery of something transformational – something magical.
When I am able to remain open and receptive during those anxious periods of not knowing, I tend to find that new and unprecedented raw material starts to appear – not only from the conscious mind, but also, it seems, from the subconscious mind, and even – potentially – the collective unconscious.
By allowing for the possibility that previously unimagined, fresh and vital elements will be manifest in my work through the seeming accidents of my creative gestures, my work becomes not only a true expression of who I am, but also has the potential to embody that most mysterious and fascinating of elements – a tangible, recognisable manifestation of our shared, collective human experience.