“I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination. Whatever the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth, whether it existed before or not.” –John Keats
Inspired by a post from Christopher Volpe
A little while back (in mid-March, when I’d had enough of the late New England winter uglies), I came upon a blog post by my artist friend Christopher Volpe, whose work I admire deeply, and whose tutelage has brought me to wonderful new places in this sometimes harrowing, sometimes lonely and perplexing, but always enriching and fulfilling art expedition of mine.
His words were salve to my winter-worn soul. (I need to go to a warm place in the winter, I think. Cold, damp, and gray are anethema to every shred of my spirit.)
He talked of finding the beauty in the mundane. “Ah!” thought I. “Yes!” A thrill of recognition–the kind you get when you think no one else understands and you at long last find the one other who does–leapt up. He posted photos by Kanevsky, Bonvin, Durer, Bunker, Baart, Shishkin.
All were of humble things like … tufts of grass. Some in bracken, no less.
Wait. Tufts of grass? In bracken?
How is that art?
Ah, grasshopper. It is not the tuft of grass itself but what the artist makes of it.
In the art world, there seem to be two camps: one of which I am firmly a part, and another I want nothing to do with. Each of these camps would make something completely different of those mundane tufts.
One camp would scoff at the tuft. Make it even uglier. Mutate it for shock value. Get a rise out of collectors, who might pay millions for it because they don’t understand the shock but sure know it gets everyone talking, and therefore, might have a really high “cool factor” going for it. This is the camp I will never fit into. Nor do I ever want to. The way I look at it is this: there’s enough ugliness in the world, and we’ve certainly been indoctrinated with enough hate and fear to last a few lifetimes over. Nope. Not for me. Not when there is so, so much beauty out there to be discovered. You see, I have this limited life to live, the way we all do, and I want to make the most of every minute of my time here. One of the things I love best about art is how it forces me to wake up and take notice. It has such a profound impact on me that I incorporated that state of “waking up” into my artist statement. Yes, it’s that important.
So, the other camp? That’s the one I belong to, and I am proud to state it. It is the camp that would glorify the tufts, show the beauty in them, not in a nostalgic, sentimental, “easy” way, but in a way that says something new and makes others pay a different kind of attention. It would be a celebration, perhaps quiet, or perhaps with trumpets blaring, but what would be common would be an energy, a gestalt, a … something … that would cause the viewer to turn and say, “I never thought of it that way before. I never felt that way about it, either. What’s going on here? Wait. I must have those tufts!” Those tufts, as simple and as unassuming as they may be in the natural world, would have risen to a new level and outright transformed both the artist and the viewer through the artist’s searching for underlying meaning.
Here’s what I said to Chris: “I like and appreciate that you’re not afraid to discuss the importance of beauty in art. There’s a high-falutin’ school of thought that says, ‘Pshaw. Beauty is for the proletariat. We here in the upper eschelons know that truly great art is meant to shock us and shake us up. Leave the beauty to the naive dreamers.’ For me, it is the opposite. In this too-fast-paced world where technology is Master, we are losing our sight of and sense of connection to the world around us. Artists have an essential purpose in society now more than ever, I think, for they’re the ones who can stop us in our tracks, make us slow down and see the beauty, even in (or, perhaps, especially in) the seemingly mundane.…”
This is a subject I’ll be revisiting over and over again, I think.
We are really good at creating meaning. We can’t help it. It’s hard-wired in our DNA. It might come after we create the work–at least, that’s how it is for me–but we know there’s something that pulls us, something we have to follow, and so we do, and the painting emerges. It’s not about the subject matter. It’s about the seeing. It’s about the emotional resonance that occurs. If we’re lucky, we find a new way of looking at the tufts, and we’ll never feel the same way about them again. No longer will mid-March mean nothing but gray and brown dwindling winter uglies for me. Now, I can search for … and find … the beautiful tufts. And the bracken. (I love that word.)
Whether it’s the beauty in a tuft, or bracken, or a humble leaf, or a blossom patchworked in different angles of light, I am with John Keats, who said, “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination. Whatever the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth, whether it existed before or not.” When it comes to what it means to be an artist, I think he nailed it. He would have probably loved the word tuft, too. And definitely bracken.