Turning the Sword

Is art for museums and collectors, or does it belong in the streets? Could art help us turn away from mass–produced violence and ugliness, and give each of us ways to forge an imaginative and beautiful future?

From the time I worked as an experimental artist in the late 1960s and early 1970s in my native Slovenia, I have been passionate about the idea of pushing art out of studios, galleries, and museums and into the street, the workplace, the market square.

Upon my arrival in the United States, I instantly fell in love with this country’s respect for individual initiative and entrepreneurial spirit, its strong democratic foundations, and tolerance of differences. At the same time, I was appalled by the nonchalant and wasteful lifestyle, and was—and am still— taken aback to see cities and neighborhoods designed for cars, not people.

I see a suspicious relationship between swelling homes and shrinking community. We seem satisfied to have beauty in certain places and absent in our lives at large. We place art in museums, galleries, and the homes of the wealthy in much the same way we keep animals in zoos. The uglier human creations become, the more we repent by erecting another museum or monument. We’ve created a culture that is undeniably successful in establishing and promoting consumer society, but in so doing we have frayed the social and environmental fabric. Museums and monuments might distract us from the damage but they will never mend it.

My good friend and artist James Hubbell has pointed out that artists are like raw nerves; they deal with collective concerns with more intensity. Ideally they respond to world issues not by simply mirroring or magnifying the challenges, but by demonstrating solutions. What begins with an exasperating speck of dust can end up with a beautiful pearl. Artists are willing to do the hard work of turning ugliness and fragmentation into beauty and meaning. Hopefully they’ve learned a thing or two about how this process works, and their skills have relevance outside the narrow artistic world.

Beginning with silence: Imagine hearing a symphony in your mind: full orchestral score, a large choir, and majestic Mahler-like sustained progressions. Now imagine that all you have to play it on is a banjo. Plunkety-plunk-plunk. The gap between what you imagine and what you actually produce is vast. You then have a choice. You can toss the banjo furiously out the window or you can trust that something true and essential of the big music can still live in the tiny sound. Artists choose the second path. They believe that small things done well have power. As Lewis Hyde so wonderfully described in his book The Gift, artists know that on the deepest level the work does not originate with the self, rather it is an offering, a blessing. Their work begins with silence, with fierce listening for subtleties that come from within and without to seed moments powerful enough to sustain the entire length of the project. Sometimes the work lasts minutes, often years, and sometimes a lifetime.

Seeing with fresh eyes: To become receptive to these seed moments, artists labor to free themselves from the consensus reality that daily routine requires. The artist endeavors to perceive directly, without filters or notions. Henri Matisse wrote, “To see is itself a creative operation. Everything that we see in our daily lives is more or less distorted by acquired habits ... and ready-made images which are to the eye what prejudice is to the mind.” It takes courage to discern one’s own thoughts. But in the process the artist becomes more aware of the assumptions and myths that govern the world and so gains the ability to discard the obsolete, empower the appropriate, and create the new.

Liberating the familiar: In recycling, we take an old, discarded object with no apparent value and re-identify it by placing it in a new context. An artist is trained to look at objects from many angles and, like a child at play, use those objects for numerous unorthodox purposes. In a culture where things are reduced to one-dimensional uses—a bridge is just a bridge, a bus stop is merely a bus stop—this playful creativity is a magical rejuvenation. A bridge can become a beautiful passage, and a bus stop a friendly oasis. Just as a gardener uses the compost of one season to stimulate the growth of the next, the artist takes parts of the old disintegrating world and uses them as fertilizer for cultural change. Out of the chaos of the old, new order is created.

Playing with perspectives: Sometimes the artist must sit for a while on the new inspiration like a hen hatching an egg. Then, when the timing is just right, she takes out her tools, be they brushes, chisels, computer or banjo, and begins to rough out what until then existed only in the mind. Birthing a symphony on four strings can be frustrating, or funny, or delightfully revelatory, depending on the attitude. Without playfulness and flexibility, without humor and self-forgiveness, the artist fights an uphill battle trying to shape outer reality into a replica of the inner one. So the Zen potter commits an intentional flaw out of deference to the perfection achieved only in Buddha nature. Quilters include a square that deviates from the design. Some crafting traditions suggest that deliberate flaws allow spirits living in the materials to escape from the object—or get in. It’s not hard to see that they also help contemporary artists keep a healthy perspective on their own limitations.

Crafting the form: To honor the muse, artists will try to infuse their message through all the parts of the work. True art does not carry the message, it is the message. When the work is crafted well, the memo becomes transparent. The artist feels an ever-present imperative to choose exactly the right word for the poem, the right stone for the wall, the right structure for the land. He can’t help but consider the smallest details, attentively harmonizing inspiration with available materials. These materials are not just the means to an end. They possess qualities the artist must perceive to create work with resonance and beauty. In this sense, crafting is always a co-creative process. The artist partakes of abundant existent creations, whether natural, such as wood or stone or a piece of land, manufactured, such as words or instrument sounds, or with colleagues who have their own unique sensibilities and talents. The artist will take all these ingredients and synthesize something new.

Honoring boundaries: Materials, not to mention collaborators, have limitations that can irritate instead of inspire. The successful artist learns to see limitations as assets, as nothing less than the nature of the resource. Once free of precious agendas, she can see that materials carry their own intent, their own direction. It is wise to dance rather than wrestle with it. In a Chinese Taoist tale, a master woodworker walks in the forests looking for just the right tree for his project. He calls out, “What do I have for you, and what do you have for me?” Too often we leave the first part of that equation out and simply exploit materials for our own purpose. Beauty and power emerge from reverent mutuality between artist and materials.

Becoming: The artist knows that the primary level of communication is with his or her own being and that art is only an extension of “beingness” into form. The first and greatest task, then, is to “art” oneself.

Turning the sword: Through the skills of more direct, less distorted perception, the artist can become aware of the assumptions and guiding myths that govern the world. If these myths have outgrown their purpose—as indeed many of our current ones have—then it behooves the artist to take on the job of discarding the obsolete, empowering the appropriate, and creating the new. Guided by their “owned” truths, they can formulate these myths in their art works and disseminate them to their community.
Fred Polak, a Dutch futurist st,ated that the rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. Images of the future generated through the power of imagination are essential to the health of all cultures, for a society’s vitality is lost once its capacity to imagine is gone. The work of artists, then, represents culture’s way of imagining beyond its linear and predicable patterns. Artists can be a culture’s scouts, forging paths into the future and their works, at their best, are prophetic.
Some years ago I had a dream in which I saw a person about to be beheaded by a descending sword. Just before the sword reached the neck, the blade turned slowly to its flat side and descended onto the shoulders as in the ceremony of knighting. What had begun as an execution turned into an initiation. This dream suggested to me that the issues that most confront us can become—if we are willing to learn—passages into a more humane and compassionate society. I believe that art is one of the forces that can help in the turning of the sword.

Presenting the work: When the work is fully realized, the artist presents it as a gift to others. It began as a gift so it only makes sense to return the favor. In our culture, art is mostly seen as a commodity. But just as the sale of one’s work is necessary for the livelihood of the worker, so a spiritual giving of the product of work is necessary for growth and creativity. In so doing the artist acknowledges that the created thing acquires a new layer of meaning as it is received by others. This completes the cycle by enriching the community and clearing space within the artist for a new beginning. In the end, there should be three results: competled artwork, a wiser person who grew within the creative process, and an enhanced community gifted with a new way of seeing, hearing, or thinking.

The process described thus far is, of course, idealized. Reality hardly ever works this way. Reality is a banjo. Artists try things out, fail, pick themselves up, work fiercely, and in the end, the work may still fall short. There are no guarantees. Still, the idiosyncratic gifts of the artist, with all their uncertainties, may be exactly what we need to create a more humane,
sustainable, and beautiful world.


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