Art as a collaboration with the Divine.
Megha Lillywhite wrote an excellent piece recently that apparently demands my full spiritual attention. I’ll explain why that is in a moment. First, I highly recommend you read it in full.
Megha’s main argument could perhaps be summarized as follows:
Real artists are storytellers whose work springs from the combination of intellect (i.e. formal design) and imagination (the inner eye’s speculation on a subject’s subtler natures).
The people falsely branded today as “artists” fall into two groups: a) politicians, who seek attention through desecration and deconstruction and b) technicians, who copy images directly through mechanical means, or by thinly disguising the work of real artists as their own.
While I agree with both elements of her argument, I think each is also missing a critical piece of the puzzle. Both intellect and imagination are indeed components of art, but there is a third requisite component which is very difficult to name. For the sake of brevity, I will call it “inspiration.” Not only is its presence required for the artist to transmit truth through his or her story, but its lack spawns an evil version of an artist, whose work employs intellect and imagination to promulgate truth-shaped lies.
To illustrate this, I will use one of the many fine examples she provides (and, as you’ll see, I probably had little choice in the matter):
After reading Megha’s piece, I immediately forwarded the image to a dear Catholic friend, who I will call Miriam. The accompanying caption was:
Was doing some reading, stumbled across Antonella de Messina’s “The Annunciate Virgin”, one of my favorite depictions.
This is accurate. But why do I favor it?
In this image, it is as though we are standing next to the angel Gabriel and looking at Mary as she receives the news.
Because the spectator can examine the scene from this perspective, he can engage with Mary’s emotions rather than just with the plot of the story itself and consider the significance of her character through her response. The black background also emphasises the focus on Mary’s face and hands, where her emotions can be best read. This piece of art shows technical mastery in the shadows on Mary’s face and the foreshortening of her right hand, but also shows an intellect that considered how best the story behind this scene could be told. In this way, Antonella da Messina was one of the first Renaissance Artists.
All of this rings true, particularly when it comes to the angle of perspective. Mary is looking at the source of the light — the angel — who stands beside the artist out of frame. Antonella’s task is to render a truth about Mary as illuminated by the angel’s light. But as the composition of the painting itself suggests, he cannot accomplish this task alone. There is another mind, hand and eye at work, a partner who assists and guides the intellect and the imagination in ways that are both invisible and indescribable through conventional means. There’s a synchronicity to that, as a good definition of visual art might be “the transmission of a truth that cannot be described in words.”
The reason I noted upfront that this concept demanded my spiritual attention is due to the dream I had, that very night. It was a strange one in the sense that it was more straightforward and direct than most of my dreams (and, I’d wager, than most dreams in general).
In it, I was sitting in a library with Miriam, to whom I texted de Messina’s painting earlier in the day. In this revised version of the event, I was attempting to do exactly the same thing, but in the “old-fashioned” way. Or, in other words, the way it would’ve been done even a scant thirty years ago.
On the table before us was a ridiculously massive tome of art history, the opening chunk of which was a table of contents which alphabetically listed every artist who ever lived and every artwork ever made. I vividly remember thumbing through these pages. Each was lined with a silver edge, for example, and the labeled tabs from A-Z had small, peculiar holes drilled through them. I remark upon their vividness because it was of that kind where I can still see them perfectly if I close my eyes, and feel the weight of them, even though the dream1 took place three nights ago.
As I flipped back and forth, scanning the tiny print for the correct name and accompanying page number, I felt a growing sense of impatience and frustration that verged on tears. Miriam, on the other hand, did not seem at all impatient. In fact, she radiated a kind of serenity, and I got the sense she thought maybe my search was a bit silly and self-defeating.
I was just about to give up hope, when the thought — no, the instinct — hit me that I should just open the book to a “random” page. When I did so, the painting of Mary was simply there. Because, of course it was. Something elusive and ineffable had informed my fingers how to open the book. Or, at least, it gave them a very strong, if materially silent, clue.
Again, you don’t have to be Freud to untangle this dream’s meaning (and it would help greatly if you weren’t). That’s because it isn’t tangled at all. It’s about as frank and prosaic as a dream could possibly be, and made even more so since it pertained to a pair of interactions I had that very same day (i.e. with Megha, indirectly, and Miriam, pseudo-directly).
But if it must be repeated, I think it would go a little something like this:
There are truths that escape all words, languages and grammars. They cannot be transmitted by the stitching together of strings and substrings in grammatical form, which is what I’m doing now. Writing serves a different purpose, in the pursuit of different truths (or perhaps, different angles upon the same Big Truth). When we try to replicate the truths of imagery through the medium of words (or vice versa) we will quickly become lost, confused and frustrated as a result.
The fruitful artist will allow for Divine inspiration to assist him, and in doing so accept that the finished work is not fully his own, but rather a collaboration with a spiritual being external to himself and his talents.
I think that second statement refers to the humility that guides not only good artworks, but good works of any kind. Humans have a mile-wide selfish streak that can cause our endeavors to spiral into destruction. For artists, this tendency becomes even more perilous, as our pleas for constant attention and ego-fulfillment tend to drown out the voices of those better angels, whether they stand beside us or within.
That lack of creative humility is often what drives the political “artist” to produce their desecrations and Dada, because their towering egos have rendered them blind and deaf to that brand of inspiration which transforms an ephemeral design into timeless art. Megha points out this out when she writes:
Some may argue that an unmade bed or a pile of garbage can “tell a story” as well, but these works always require an essay in accompaniment to tell their story because they cannot tell the story themselves, except one that we may project onto it. This is what makes it politics and not art. An objective standard for real art is that it can stand alone.
This is an excellent way of putting it (particularly her pile-of-garbage analogy, which is what almost everything nominally branded “art” has become, over the past hundred-odd years). I do not argue with her definition of artist-as-politician2, as this species of propagandist looms everywhere we look today. I also think that artist-as-technician is still a mistake that's being made, albeit with less frequency over time. Not only have the machines automated more and more of this breed's soulless "artwork", but the explosion of such reality-copying consumer tech has devalued it through oversupply.
And that's even not to mention the desensitization factor. We are drenched in media that magnifies false art and fake artists, in both the simulacra of the copycat technicians and the dimwitted blasphemies of the political provocateurs, and this oversaturation is resulting in diminishing psychological returns. For example, nobody really cares how edgy you are (or think you are) anymore. Nobody even cares about your technical skills. Haven’t you heard that DALL-E is going to replace you, just as ChatGPT will replace storytellers of the written form?
With regards to my own battles against the latter machine, I’ve tried to explain to friends that my victories were artistic in nature, and weren’t mine alone. Luc Koch recently published an excellent piece on extrasensory phenomena, which I think dovetails neatly with what I think of as the inspiration component of art, in any medium or form:
On it, I commented (in part) as follows, with regards to those who fail to see that hidden hand in artistic achievement:
While they won't come right out and say it, I sense they strongly suspect I'm withholding something in my descriptions, that I possess some hidden factual knowledge about an exploitable weakness in the system. That when I describe my work as art, I'm being theatrical or even duplicitous.
It's not true. What *is* true is something they seem incapable of believing.
While I indeed have some very minor knowledge about how such systems function, I did not have the code in front of me. And even if I had, the vast majority of it would likely be beyond my technical experience or ken.
Here's what I observed about the experience. When facing the robot in the first three sessions, I was "in the zone," as you put it. I wouldn't describe it as "auto-writing"; there was thought involved, and even moments of contemplation. But by and large my process was intuitive, artistic. I felt that indescribable feeling of connection, and access to a grammar beyond language.
There are many reasons for their skepticism, most of which can be traced straight back to the Enlightenment (and, Luc notes in a separate article, to the degeneration of its spirit over time). But I think a key reason that isn’t described often or well enough is immediacy.
As users of high-speed global communications networks (and the various toys strung to their ends), we can be tricked into thinking of ourselves as immutable and superpowered beings. For example: with the press of a few buttons, I delivered a nearly 700-year-old image of the Virgin Mary to my friend. Zap! Just like that.
This is an illusion, of course. Were the Internet to go dark tomorrow, either from an epic solar storm or via an act of treachery, we wouldn’t even be back to searching through picture books for such images, as I did in my dream. We’d be far too busy trying not to starve to death. In that sense, our current superpowers are more fragile than the thinnest glass. And if we have become some form of technological supermen, our Kryptonite is still hubris, of course, as it was for that cosmic villain who saw himself as the equal of God.
In a certain narrow sense, it doesn’t matter if one takes the concepts like the devil or like Divine inspiration “literally.”3 But in the latter case, it's also not enough to say that the third component of art springs from "the subconscious", because that model is no more proven than the spiritual one which informed all of human history before it. We can't even prove our own consciousness, let alone that of secret mechanical agents within it, which operate without our knowledge or intent. In fact this model of mind creates more holes than it repairs, which evil people will then fill with their perverse ideologies, illogical language and toxic drugs.
And yet, that has been the prevailing model, which rose to prominence during the epic madness and bloodshed of the 20th century, and which continues to fuel the tyrannies and genocides of the first twenty-three years of this one. It's in light of this epistemic arrogance that the motives for promoting the mechanized model become highly suspect. If the goal was to produce happy, healthier minds, it’s not working. It has never worked.
But just as inspiration alone cannot forge art, it can itself be a dangerous illusion. The being standing next to the artist may very well look and sound like an angel, but in actuality be nothing of the sort. That is why it must be partnered with intellect and imagination, which in tandem allows us to “see the future,” so to speak. In creating an artwork, we must realize that we are speaking to that future, even from beyond the veil of death, and that our language must therefore reflect its best possible version to help others find their way there.
But again: danger lurks. If we notice that our art aligns with plenty of short term goals, we should rightly be suspicious of our spiritual wingman’s identity. For instance, popular gallery exhibitions, glowing reviews, a sharp rise in social status — these can all point to communion with an imposter, who is using your gifts to cause damage at a node too distant for you to see. So can exorbitant price tags on ugly, disfiguring and dehumanizing images, in which the concept of beauty being “in the eye of the beholder” is run straight off the cliff into the madness of pure subjectivity.
I will write separately about this corrupted breed of artist, because I know more than a little about that subject. But learning to recognize the angel of inspiration is more important, because to do so is to accept your own limitations as an embodied spirit in a fallen world. To reach that level of acceptance is the beginning of a journey, not the end. And considering the breadth and depth of the illusions that face us today, getting started on that journey is critical for artists and non-artists alike.
In closing, I want to mention that I had a very loud, intense argument with some very beloved people last night. The subject was the policing of speech, of which I am obviously not a fan. There is a certain horror snaking its way not just through our institutions, but through our hearts and minds, and coiling itself around our souls. To see the face of it beneath a loved one’s own is both terrifying and enraging. But we need to learn how to temper our reactions to that face.
Ironically, this is done through free and open conversation, in which we assume the best in each other’s motives and language, rather than the worst (which is the norm today). The conundrum that faces us is how to do that, when the subject is “free and open conversation” itself. The temptation to become combative on this topic is at times overwhelming, because not only are people arguing the other side providing cover for tyrants, but they want to remove your right to disagree with them at all. Still, we must resist that temptation with all our spiritual fortitude, because accusation is the devil’s native tongue.
As that pertains to artists and our wingmen, I think the answer may be to show grace even — or especially — when it isn’t given. Some of us have been gifted the ability to make art about the evils in this world, which is perhaps the most dangerous gift of all. The price is that we must always strive not to become the monsters we describe or fight, and keep a watchful eye on that source of illumination glowing just out-of-frame. It may not always be who or what we think it is.
P.S. If you found any of this valuable (and can spare any change), consider dropping a tip in the cup for ya boy. I’ll try to figure out something I can give you back. Thanks in advance.
If it was a “dream.” I’ve thought for many years now that lumping all sleeping experience into the same generic category is an error of reduction.
In fact, I regularly ran afoul of this breed quite often as a young painter, who would happily retail the ugly lie that “All art is political,” and sell their (often meager) talents to the highest propaganda bidder.
Another overused and contentious word which, like “dream”, feels like a reductive error.