The Way We Were
Just before COVID19 catapulted the world into a bad sci-fi movie, I started a large, ambitious painting. The painting above is not it.
After the Sturm und Drang of those first few weeks of obsessive hand washing, news watching, and counting the number of peanut butter jars in my cupboard, I didn’t feel up to painting at all. My Purell fume fogged brain just couldn't cope! And yet, life and art must go on. “Just try something small," my wiser self whispered.
So here it is, a little 6"X8" painting of my street as it looked just a few months ago in January. How cozy this scene makes me feel. !n a world now irrevocably divided into pre and post-COVID, I look back on that quiet, snowy evening with affection and not a little sadness. My street still looks the same - though now without snow. Sunsets are still beautiful. But for me, my neighb!ours, and people around the world, nothing will ever be the same.
Ask most artists and they will tell you that beginning a new project can be scary. Will your art piece turn out to be a raving success or a carve your ear off type disaster?? The uncertainty can be crippling. And yet it is precisely this uncertainty, this moving forward into the unknown, that defines the true nature of art.
Forget the paint, clay, musical notes, or written words - the things that we generally think of as art mediums. These are mere incidentals As I see it, an artist's true medium is nothing other than uncertainty itself. Uncertainty can be both thrilling and terrifying. It is uncompromising and alluring. Uncertainty means that anything can happen. And, for this reason, uncertainty’s hidden name is freedom.
Even a completed work of art, however stunning, is also incidental - an old skin shuffled off in the artistic process. As T.S. Eliot observes:
…every attempt Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure Because one has only learnt to get the better of words for the thing One no longer has to say, or the way in which One is no longer disposed to say it., And so each venture Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate…
- T.S. Eliot, East Coker
Even so, if the artist is successful, his or her work remains as a timeless testament to humankind's ongoing creative confrontation with uncertainty.
The defining characteristic of great art is that it transcends the individual artist to become part of our collective consciousness. Picasso's Guernica is a prominent example of this. Picasso was allegedly so cruel to his wives and lovers that three of them committed suicide. And yet, long after his death, a replica of Guernica hangs in the headquarters of the United Nations as a powerful call to peace. “Never again!,” the painting screams into our uncertain future.
More broadly, the artistic process is not the province of artists alone. Society itself is a work of art in progress. We are all, like it or not, its co-creators. The political theorist, Eric Voegelin, describes this co-creative act of human society as:
… a little world, a cosmion, illuminated with meaning from within by the human beings who continually create and bear it as the mode and condition of their self realization.
– Eric Voegelin, New Science of Politics
I hope that we all, as co-creators of our future, can fare forward into the radical uncertainty of our new, not so normal days, with creativity, courage, ingenuity, and, above all, loving attention to each other, and our planet.