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Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Page, the Canvas, the Clay and the Silent Room

by Tom King © 2010

The really difficult thing for an artist or an artisan is to confront the blank medium of his or her chosen craft, whether it's the blank page, the unpainted canvas, the shapeless lump of clay or the silent room into which the music must be poured. Many of our greatest artists report that they face those empty voids with anxiety, frustration and sometimes downright terror.

I think this happens when the writer, painter, sculptor or musician comes to believe his art is somehow tied to his worth as a human being. There have, indeed, been some amazing works of art that have been wrought by tortured souls looking to validate their existence on this Earth – no doubt of that. I just have to wonder, though, whether these particular works of art are powerful because of their innate beautiful, or whether we simply can't take our eyes from them in the same way we cannot turn our eyes from the scene of a train wreck or plane crash.

There are works of “art” that come from these blank canvases and empty sheets of paper that, when read or viewed, have a powerful effect upon you. But if that effect is to sicken your soul so that you experience the twisted emotions, anger or misery of the artist, I rather wonder whether the piece is actually great or merely powerful. Greatness and power are not the same thing, though our post-modern culture has convinced itself that they are.

How many movies feature the word “powerful” in the list of descriptors on the poster. How much art or literature is called “powerful” and are therefore celebrated as “great”. Adolph Hitler's “Mein Kampf” is a powerful work of literature and though we are not prepared (yet) to call it a “great work” it could, by today's standards be considered “great”. The book did have a powerful impact on the world stage. The critics of the day did find the book worthy of admiration. I found a 30's era college literature book in a flea market once that included the complete text of Hitler's opus with laudatory comments regarding the book's “power”. The hideous import of the Fuhrer's masterpiece received little attention from the intelligentsia. It was the power of the thing that captivated and held them in thrall.

For me, the blank page represents an opportunity to draw attention to what is good in the world. Such writing is called “sentimental” and “maudlin” by the post-modernist critics.

For me, the blank canvas is a chance to find beauty in even mundane places. Such art is called “prosaic” and “predictable” by the critics.

For me, the silent room and the musical instrument in the hands of an artist are an open channel through which something good and free and fine and sweet may flow and lift us and carry us away. The critics dismiss such music as "pedestrian".

Art which lifts up goodness and honor and those great values can be powerful. On the other hand, art which is powerful may lift up evil and misery and corruption for the admiration of all. Such art should not be considered good to my way of thinking.

Politics is an art they say and I believe it holds true. A leader spends his time upon the world stage and works his or her art through the wielding of power – either power which has been bestowed upon him or her or power which has been seized or won. They say that such power corrupts. Well, I don't fully believe that. Corrupt power corrupts – yes! Power, sought, for its own sake, I maintain, is already corrupt. There are those among our leaders, who attempt in their time in the political arena, to create things of beauty and goodness using the power they have as a tool.

Once you have written your constitution, your law or created some great public work, you then have two choices. You can let go of that power, content that you have done well and let your work speak and act for itself. If that work was meant for good, it will have a power for good, long after you have faded into the background, ridden off into the sunset or settled gracefully into your rocking chair on the back porch.

Or you can cling to that power, even if it's only the vestiges of that power. You can fritter endlessly over your “legacy” and hover over your work long after it is done and you should have retired gracefully from the stage. Power corrupts indeed – especially if you don't know how to let it go.*

Just one man's opinion.....

Tom King

* I can think of 5 powerful men off the top of my head who are perfect examples of this – both ways.

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