A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 286: Quo Vadis?

every set of eyes has a right to the truth

“Quo vadis?”

Truth is a tricky thing to nail down. “What is truth?”, the question Pontius Pilate put to Jesus of Nazareth, is a huge philosophical debate platform. The Bible records no answer Jesus gave to this question. However, he did refer to himself as the Truth in the Gospel of John. Certainly a profound statement, and one Christians point to as the ultimate answer to “Quo vadis?”, but it also deepens the mystery, and ultimately just adds more fuel to the debate fires that rage on around Truth.

Well, I’m here today to throw some of my own tiny bits of kindling on that fire.

You’re welcome.

Today’s Creative Spirit artwork contains part of a quote by children’s author Blue Balliett:

“Every person, every set of eyes, has the right to the truth.”

I loved this quote when I came across it searching for words about art and creativity. The imagery in the words struck me first: That every set of eyes has a right to the truth. As someone who does visual art this resonated with me. It was a helpful reminder to stay true to who I am as an artist, don’t try to be someone else or try to pander to this or that: the viewer has a right to the truth, to authenticity.

The words from Blue Balliett also contain a sense of what art is meant to communicate: The ever elusive Truth. It is a funny thing because we philosophize and debate Quo Vadis?  and seemingly come to no suitable answer, yet when we open our eyes to what is in front of us, painted on a canvas, sculpted, shot through a camera lens, etched, drawn, created for us to see with our eyes we know it is Truth. There is an indescribable something about that artwork that defines Truth, even if you cannot put words to it or, perhaps, especially if you cannot put words to it.

What makes this kind of Truth in art elusive is the Truth-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder factor. I have no idea what your reaction to seeing Picasso’s Guernica might be. For me, when I saw that enormous masterpiece in person many years ago, taking up an entire wall in a museum in Madrid, I saw Truth. Maybe you see something confusing, confounding, disturbing… Well, maybe it doesn’t feel like it, but that could be Truth as well.

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As an artist, I suppose all this comes down to being true to yourself, because if you are, people will see Truth in your work, even if it is confusing, confounding, disturbing or, for that matter, inspiring, encouraging or beautiful. Then you will have honored the viewer; you will have given them what they are entitled to have: Truth. In this way, Bob Ross is just as real as Pablo Picasso: Both are being true to themselves and honoring the viewer by doing so.

When I painted and drew the artwork in this post, an image of alien-type print came to my mind; a script for some language I don’t know and can never translate. I started by just making these marks across the paper. I meant for the figure’s hands to frame the “eyes” but the whole stance looks more like someone looking in a window, peering in to see what’s there. It’s as if the figure is trying to get a glimpse of the person viewing the art, maybe to find the Truth in their eyes.

I’m not sure what this is all about but I can guarantee you I was authentic and letting things flow. If you find in it something that feels like Truth, I am happy.

every set of eyes has a right to the truth

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 18: Sincere Flattery Gallery

The saying goes: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. It also happens to be a dynamite way to re-educate yourself in art!

About 25 years elapsed between the time I graduated from Calvin College with a Fine Arts Degree to when I began to seriously make art again. I had dabbled in things, of course. I drew cartoons, did the occasional artwork for some church event, whipped out a drawing for my kids to color, etc. but to actually sit down and draw for drawing sake… it had been a loooooong time. So I set about putting myself through some basics of art education. One of my favorite things to do was look up famous portraits by the masters and attempt to copy them. Now “copy” sounds like I was sharpening my forgery skills. No – I was looking at the Greats in order to teach myself more about color and form, the use of line and shade, and all those things that flow so much better when you haven’t been NOT doing art for a loooooong time! I wasn’t trying for exact replicas and  was using cheap oil pastels and pencil crayons on lousy paper. Basically they were ramshackle sketches of masterpieces. But I enjoyed the process and the results gave me confidence to create again.

Here is a gallery of of my Sincere Flattery and my sincere attempt to get my Art-Jones back again! It probably goes without saying but the original is on the left! And if you want to know the artist and artwork, the caption is supposed to pop up when you put the cursor on the portrait (at least it did for me – sorry if it doesn’t work for you). All of my copies are done in oil pastels with some pencil crayon touches. The one just below was done with a $2 set of pastels from a teacher’s supply store! Enjoy.

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 5: From Prick to Prophet

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Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937

“Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole, not like you.”

This lyric can be found in the song “Pablo Picasso” by the Modern Lovers. It is b0th hilarious and, by all reports, completely false. Pablo Picasso could, in fact, be a real asshole, especially to the women in his life. Likely he was called that in multiple languages on multiple occasions. But that begs the question: Can an artist be a jerk and still create dangerously moving and powerful art?

My answer to that is a resounding, “YES!” But people have a really hard time with that. We want our artists – whether they are musicians, painters, actors, writers, poets, dancers, etc. – to live up to the beautiful, truthful, powerful and poignant things they create.

But here’s the rub: Artists can be selfish, petty and screwed-up. In fact, I would argue that many of the people we would label “genius” have some tremendous flaws of personality and conduct. Stories abound of relationship conflicts, racism and sexism, violence, alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide. Artists tend towards depression and anxiety; they are often ostracized in society because of things like homosexuality or their political leanings. Yes, many can be and have been assholes. But many have also struggled in a world that doesn’t understand them at all, causing all kinds of anti-social behavior to ensue.

But does this lessen the power of their creations? “Guernica”, perhaps Picasso’s most famous work, should give us the answer to that question.

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I had the opportunity to see this masterpiece in person at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, Spain. What strikes you first is the sheer size of the painting: It is 11 feet by 25 feet. As an art student who had only seen the painting in a text book, I found its scale to be, literally, breath-taking (I was a bit woozy upon seeing it the first time!). It commands your attention by its size alone. But the true power lies in the imagery and presentation, the shape and form, the movement and contrast. It conveys agony and brutality, death and destruction, and, in the form of a simple flower, at first hard to find amidst the chaos, hope.

Many have called “Guernica” the greatest painting of the 20th century. During the Spanish Civil War, Picasso was commissioned by the Republican government of Spain to create a painting that protested the tactics and alliances of Generalissimo Francisco Franco and his Nationalist forces. Franco was allied with Nazi Germany which used the Spanish Civil War as a testing ground for its newest weapons and tactics. Though Picasso had not lived in Spain for many years, he was sympathetic to the Republican cause and very opposed to the Nationalist Franco. He began to work on an idea for the commission but he wasn’t satisfied with it. Then the news hit of what happened to the city of Guernica, the center of Basque culture in northern Spain. Picasso had his inspiration.

Guernica was targeted because of its importance to the Basque people, known for their support of the Republican government. It became one of the first cities to endure a horrifying example of the new modern warfare: Carpet bombing. The city had been mercilessly bombed from the air by German aircraft until it became a pile of ruins and dead bodies. Images of the event shocked the world and became a harbinger of things to come.

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This event propelled Picasso to make his boldest and most enduring commentary on his world. Picasso’s subject matter usually tended towards the personal: his own inner life or his own experiences and points of view. He was not a political artist or a propagandist. But in “Guernica”, the man who could be a prick became a prophet. Through the painting, the world became much more aware of the war that was tearing Spain apart and of the role Nazi Germany was playing in the destruction. But the painting really took hold and became an enduring anti-war symbol when the world itself would have war brought to its doorstep just a few years later. As images like those from Guernica became more and more common, as the death toll went into the thousands upon thousands all over the globe, his painting came to represent the devastating impact of war on the 20th century and the fear of living in the atomic age.

When I consider this incredible painting and the brilliant yet deeply flawed individual who created it, I realize the profound dichotomy at work in making art of any kind. On the one hand, a work of art is intimately connected with its creator; the artist’s personality, experiences, quirks, humour, outlook, politics, hopes, dreams, etc. are infused into whatever they make. But on the other hand, a work of art takes on a completely independent life of its own,quite apart from the creator. It can take on much greater meaning and scope; it can challenge and thrill and inspire and infuriate far beyond any idea the artist ever had in mind.

To put it another way, art would not exist without the artist. But art doesn’t need the artist to continue to live on, to thrive, to become something great and meaningful. Art endures and gains strength quite often in spite of the fallibility and weakness of its creator.

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Picasso working on Guernica

 

I take great comfort in these thoughts. As an artist, what I create is deeply personal because so much of myself has been poured into it.  I make what only I can make: It is as unique and distinct as I am. But I know I am flawed, not just as an artist but as a human being. It is a great relief to me to know that what I make can exist quite apart from me. In fact, it can even take on meaning and purpose far beyond my own life’s meaning and purpose. But I also take comfort in this as someone who enjoys the art of others. We have become people who almost know too much about our artists (especially the celebrity artists) and their personal lives. Often we cannot enjoy something that has been created because we attach it to that artist’s personality or some transgression or some inconsistency of behavior or thought.

I don’t believe that art of any kind was ever meant to be connected so strongly to the personal. Art is meant to be experienced, felt, seen, digested, touched, heard, enjoyed and engaged. It cannot exist without the very human beings who create it. Yet it exists not as an extension of those people. It exists as its own entity and, as such, is free to be loved or hated, praised or criticized apart from the artists. It exists to freely continue to speak to people in new and fresh ways.

Really, art is a lovely paradox, created by mortals but with a potential for immortality. In a way, art is the very best and worst of us transformed into the hope of eternity. Pablo Picasso may have been an asshole but “Guernica” is proof that even we humans, trapped in flesh, scrabbling down in the mud, have within us the image of the Divine.

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