Why We Need Art

Why We Need Art

(And why we make it – or we don’t)


“Towers of Light” at Ground Zero. Photo by Derek Jensen, Wikimedia Common

Commencement Address to Oregon College of Arts and Crafts
Portland, Oregon, May 2002

This ceremony comes at the completion of a great labor, of several years of study, concentration, and work, but it most fully marks a beginning, a commencement: you step across the threshold into what you hope, we all hope, will be your life’s work. Up until now your main teachers have been standing beside you, flesh and blood: your fellow students and the members of an extraordinary faculty who have mentored and nourished and provoked you, and they will continue to care about you and respond, when asked, to what you do, but your more daily teachers from here on out will be your own experience: your curiosity, commitment, perception, and, often, your frustration.

Many different things draw us all together today, but one thing we all have in common is that we not only believe but know that art matters. This is not a knowledge shared by all Americans; too often art is seen as something peripheral or dispensable: a luxury. And yet when the chips are down, when we are struggling with the deepest challenges of human existence, we turn to art to make sense of our lives. We were painfully reminded of this just a few months ago when, in the aftermath of the tragic events of September 11th, poetry immediately replaced the banal chatter of jokes and trivia on the Internet. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939,” Yeats’s “The Second Coming“: these and so many other poems circulated among us like life-rings thrown out to the drowning. We clung to these words, distilled from previous chapters in the world’s book of horrors, and they helped make some small bit of sense out of what was literally insensible. These words from days gone by spoke to us at a moment that we were struck dumb by the present.

It took longer for new words to form that could inform, and the first immediate response to this particular horror that really touched me was a visual one, the “Towers of Light” conceived by artists and architects to memorialize the site by recreating the forms of the towers with projections of light reaching toward the heavens, an afterimage, a spiritual echo of the forms and the souls we simply could not grasp departed, vaporized before our eyes.

Art that touches us, that moves us, that gives us hope and meaning in our darkest hours or transports us beyond banality in our moments of comfort and joy, has a quality that John Briggs, a scholar of the creative process at Harvard, calls omnivalence. Ambivalence is the sense of neither/nor – something is not quite this but not quite that. But omnivalence is the quality of everything at once. Think, Briggs suggests, of the first line to Hemingway’s story “In Another Country”: “The war was still there, but we did not go to it anymore.” It’s a line filled with much more than any single emotion or response: with grief but also relief, with irony and sadness, anger and nostalgia. Or think of that most universally known icon of art, the Mona Lisa. Her smile is simultaneously innocent and knowing, wicked and kind, erotic and virginal. It has stuck with us through the centuries precisely because it carries so many possibilities at once. In this age of mass reproduction, it has become cliché, but imagine standing in front of it a century or two ago, when the only souvenir you would take away would be seared in your memory. It is this sort of frisson that keeps our hearts and souls alive. It’s why we need art woven through the very fabric of our daily lives.

Joseph Brodsky, a Nobel Prize-winning poet, thinks poetry – and I’m sure he would extend this observation to all the arts – is “perhaps the only insurance we’ve got against the vulgarity of the human heart, and it should be available to everyone.” He suggests that volumes of poetry should be in motel rooms next to the Bible. “The Bible won’t mind this,” he says. “It doesn’t mind being next to the telephone book.”

Art achieves its impact from something Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its esemplastic power, the ability to make sense out of chaos, to “shape into one” the many truths around us. Art “informs” us: an artist, through his or her work, literally gives form to what has not been clearly understood before. We talk about artists as gifted. Critic and MacArthur Fellow Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift: Creatiity and the Artist in the Modern World, sees this gift as moving through the artist out into the culture at large. As he explains:

An artist who wishes to exercise the esemplastic power of the imagination must submit himself to what I have called a “gifted state,” one in which he is able to discern the connections inherent in his materials and give the increase, bring the work to life….

Once an inner gift has been realized, it may be passed along, communicated to the audience. And sometimes this embodied gift – the work – can reproduce the gifted state in the audience that receives it…. Sometimes, then, if we are awake, if the artist really was gifted, the work will induce a moment of grace, a communion, a period during which we too know the hidden coherence of our being and feel the fullness of our lives.

To “know the hidden coherence of our being and feel the fullness of our lives…” What can be more important than that? What can be more fulfilling? Yet, so many of us who start to make art ultimately quit. The prognosis is not good. Every teacher I know in the arts has commented on how few of their talented students are still making art a few years after their graduation. I have heard various statistics – that only one or two or three in ten recipients of a BFA or MFA are still engaged in artistic endeavor a decade after they complete formal study.

Why, if art is so important, do so many of us turn from its creation? In a word, because it’s so hard. And what is hard, truly, is not the making of art, those periods in which we are fruitful and working at our limit. What kills us are those times when we are not making art, when we have completed a body of work and stand depleted, when we have followed a path of inquiry as far as we are able and it is still not resolved, or when we are in the middle of some chaos that won’t yield to our desire to bring it into form. This is a universal struggle in art, those fallow periods when the muses have deserted us, when we cannot imagine working fruitfully or with inspiration, when we doubt the value of everything we have ever done and our newest ideas seem only tiresome clichés.

I know of no artist who hasn’t gone through periods like this, some of great length. Theodore Roethke recalled a period of months in which he wrote not a single good poem. But he kept working and finally, of an evening, a poem came to him and he literally fell down on his knees and wept with joy and gratitude. “What do you suggest for writers’ block?” students used to ask another great poet of the Pacific Northwest, William Stafford. He always answered the same thing: “Lower your standards and keep writing.”

When I was preparing this talk, I spoke with one of my own teachers, Utah figurative painter Paul Davis, and asked him what he thought distinguished the students who actually became artists from those who went on to other pursuits. He suggested that it related, at least in part, to how well they dealt with boredom.

Boredom. Paul’s answer took me by surprise and I asked him to explain. Genuine artistic growth over time, he suggested, was in large part an ability to embrace your boredom, to struggle with it and remain engaged with it rather than turn away. To learn from your boredom, to let the pain and agony and frustration of it increase until it creates its own energy, until you literally can’t stand it anymore and something – call it the esemplastic power – breaks through: that is what distinguishes the real artist from someone who goes on to a line of work with more immediate rewards, in advertising, say, or car sales, or the study of the law.

Boredom, anger, frustration…. If we don’t turn away from these things, they can push us past our limits. But if we falter, go do the laundry and wait for inspiration to strike, ten years from now we will have a tidy wardrobe, but we won’t have a significant body of work.

Paul said something else that has stuck with me and which I’ve come to think is a corollary of his first observation. “If you don’t think you have the talent to be an artist,” he said, “you probably don’t.” Paul believes in native talent— he would be quick to agree that the ability to draw or paint comes more easily to some than to others—but I don’t think that was what he was talking about here. Rather, I think he meant that you have to believe that the struggle is worth enough—and, more importantly, that you are worthy of the struggle—or you won’t keep working through those dark nights of the soul. You won’t wait around for that moment of gratitude that Roethke earned after all those months of nothingness. What history reads as talent, in other words, has as much to do with passion, curiosity, and stubbornness as natural ability.

I have a favorite cartoon taped up on my wall: the planets are falling out of the sky. “Don’t look now,” one of them says, “but there’s nothing holding us up!” The caption below: “If the solar system had human faith.” Faith in our own talent is the gravity, the force that keeps us in orbit around the potential of our own passions and ideas, even when we are temporarily marooned on the dark side of the moon.

When we use the term “genius” today, we most often think in terms of celebrity, a term applied to a select group of individuals, but the ancient Romans considered it something nascent in each of us, our own creative or tutelary spirit. The Greeks called this quality our daemon. “This genius,” writes Lewis Hyde, “comes to us at birth. It carries with it the fullness of our undeveloped powers. Those it offers to us as we grow, and we choose whether or not to accept, which means we choose whether or not to labor in its service…to suffer change.”

To suffer change: what an extraordinary term. I’ve never had much truck with the romantic vision of the tortured artist raving in a garret; I think that for many, even most, artists, the suffering is much more mundane. But the suffering is real, and I believe that artists are born in those moments of greatest doubt.

The Greeks believed that if you were not willing to suffer change in the labor of your genius, then your descendants would be haunted by a lemur, an evil spirit that would cause endless mischief and pain. All these aeons later, it’s a powerful metaphor. We only have to look around to recognize its archetypal truth. We know, each of us—just as our parents and their grandparents have known— of the connections among all living things, and yet we have continued to break these connections, to let species become extinct and our waters and air grow cloudy with debris. And our children will in fact be visited by lemurs; lemurs are skulking among us right now.

William Burroughs wrote that “All serious artists attempt the miraculous, the creation of life. They dream for those who have no dreams of their own to keep them alive.” So sally forth, you dreamers. God give you courage to keep dreaming through the dark night of the soul. Your gift is nothing less than the chance to save the world.