Welcome. This blog site places before you a remarkable man, Charles Beck, an artist and teacher. This monthly series of stories begins by describing Charlie’s ways of being in the world, through my encounters with Charlie in the last decade of his life first as my colleague, then mentor and finally or rather for ever as my dearest friend. Year two of this blog expands to include my own hopefully and enduringly perspectives on art, on teaching and of a certain slant on life inflected by Charlie. ~ Peter London

Art as Transformation

  " . . . art is also a Teaching, a Pointing, a process of individual 
transformation and, most hopefully, societal reform."

Picture if you will, a painting of our times, one that has established our very notions of modernity, and changed the aesthetic sensibilities of the arts and of our entire built environment. Think of a name that every schoolchild knows, a name associated with the look of the twentieth century in almost every portion of these modern times. MONDRIAN. Now picture, if you will, one of his paintings, can you see it? It is really not too difficult to describe, is it? If you were asked now to describe not merely what the work of Mondrian looks like, but what the work of Mondrian is about, what would you now say? What do you think the intentions of Mondrian were, and why is his work of such value? Not merely commercial value, but of intellectual worth?

Would you like to know what Mondrian thought he was doing? What he intended his work to provide? Listen to what he said his work was about, and apparently not conveyed on to us by others who have had the responsibility to know better.  Mondrian had this to say about his own work;
“Through our intuition, the universal in us can become so active that it pushes aside our individuality, then art can reveal itself… Art, like religion, is the means through which we can know the universal and contemplate it in plastic (physical) form …Art brings the universal downward on the one hand, while on the other it helps raise the individual toward the universal … That universal order - that shared origin, pattern, destiny, is present in all life, but is veiled to the unpracticed eye.”
The role of the artist is to strive for clear, transpersonal vision to become aware of this universal order, present it to the rest of the world, so that they may be so instructed; not instructed to make images as he made images, but instructed by the underlying patterns of the worlds so that we may guide our own lives accordingly. This is the transformative power of art that I am referring to. More exactly, we may say the following about the great and transformative objective of Mondrian 
"No matter how the duality of inward and outward is manifested, as nature and spirit, man against man, male and female, so long as this duality has not achieved equilibrium and recovered its unity, it remains tragic. The artist must be able to abolish this tragedy."
Tragic, was the term Mondrian gave to the idea (Greek, really) of an unnecessary conflict with the universal order (which the Greeks personified in their Gods), and which can only end badly. And now, if we once again return to that painting by Mondrian, this time "reading" it as Mondrian intended is work: What do we see, and what can we understand?

If this work is not merely pretty, but if this work is also Wise, what can we learn from its consideration? If this is a "Map" of a new world order, the new human, a world that and a human being who have transcended the old adversarial duality's amongst its many components, and achieved a deep level of equilibrium and dynamic harmony, What do we now find of value and satisfaction in his work?

Now, why are the use of only primary colors so, not merely handsome, but necessary, wise? What do we now make of the use that the vertical lines are put to, the horizontal lines? The white areas?

But who has told us of these intentions of Mondrian, (did you also not know they were the same intentions of Kandinsky, the other foundation of Modern Art?)  The art critics that I have read, (with the notable and all too rare exceptions: Annanda Coomeraswamy, John Berger, Roger Lipsey, Paul Shepard, Lucy Lippard and other Feminist critics), the art historians and the art educators that I have had, have devoted their labors in instructing me about the Look of art, the how of, and when certain things were made that the teacher thought were the right things, how to make things that looked like what the art teacher thought were the important things to look at.

My claim is this; that a great deal of instruction about what art is and what art does and how art is made stems from one common root in most institutional art in our society. And that is Art as an entertainment, distinguished as it may be, it is nevertheless as an entertainment to decorate the lives we have; to give relief to an otherwise hodge-podge, pell-mell, helter-skelter, anxiety inducing world of our own making.

We have taken our most gifted people and trained them up to be entertainers, to provide us with mollifying images, pretty tunes, beautiful movements; not all; certainly there are many who, mostly ex cathedra, have gone their own more difficult ways.  And we have failed to tell them that in addition to art as an entertainment, a necessary balm to an often bruising or only a confusing life, art is also a Teaching, a Pointing, a process of individual transformation and, most hopefully, societal reform.

And so my argument and recommendations:

We know all to well the many symptoms of our current distress: the profound frictions between the rich and poor, males and females, blacks and whites, old and young, religious creed and religious creed, the human fragment of creation and all the rest of creation; things that should be whole are now broken, things that should cohere within a larger pattern are seen to be and treated as disjointed, adversarial. Subsuming patterns appear vague and we seem to be adrift in a miasma of many independent, indifferent at best, at worst, confrontational relationships. Given this context, how may we frame the task before us, the task not only of our times, but if art and art education is to be an essential component of our times, make more of a contribution to these times than our current one; a relief and an entertainment.

Simply put, what must we do? In keeping with the views I have just outlined before, my own response to that question starts quite close to home , and easy to say, but I'm afraid less easy to achieve;

    to become whole, entire,
    to experience our Selves as whole and coherent,
    to perceive our universe as whole, coherent ,alive and our Selves as significant members of an infinitely broad and deep family,
    And dare I use the following term in an academic setting? To notice that everything, everything is "holy." By this term "holy", I mean to point in the direction that is pointed to in this brief story from the work of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

But the problem is that this degree of order and significance of all the parts to the entire whole is not easily discernible by an examination of the surface of things.  In a telling observation of the work of Chardin, Proust said the following:
"We have learned from Chardin that a pear is as living as a woman, that an ordinary piece of pottery is as beautiful as a precious stone. The painter has proclaimed the divine quality of all things... He has brought us out of a false ideal, to penetrate deeply into reality, to find therein everywhere a beauty no longer the feeble prisoner of convention , a false taste, but free, strong, universal,- opening the world to us."
And so we come back to the role of the artist here, the potential role of the artist, that in fact did inform the intentions of Mondrian ,Kandinsky, Brancusi, Shahn,  and now in our own times continues to inform the work of such artists as Judy Chicago, Miriam Shapiro, Therese Moran and substantial other brave souls;

To see beneath the surface of things the patterns that CONNECT. In order to perceive the pattern, to penetrate the surface,

We require our entire repertoire of human mentation:

Now our society and of course our schools, employ only half the powers of our mind to perceive the nature of reality, to reckon the extent of our Selves, and to conduct our affairs. We value and employ only one half of each of these vast continua; we elevate consciousness over sub consciousness, reason over intuition argument over silence, and so on.

This practice not only veils perception, it distorts even what we are able to so perceive, and, employing only half our equipment, and distorting even that half, makes us insufficient to our task. Employing half our equipment, we can only see half of what there may be to see, and consider only half of what must be considered, and do only a fraction of what we may be capable of doing, and are only a fraction of what we might be. In these ways we have become the persons and the society that we have now become; bifurcated, imbalanced, at odds within ourselves, we cannot help but be at odds with one another and with the world entire.

We have inherited a civilization and its underlying world view which is based upon the primacy of parts over wholes, of individuals over communities, of humans presumed superiority over all the rest of nature, of the best from the least, of blacks from whites, of Christians from Jews, of rich from poor, of men from women, of the gay from the straight community, of reason over intuition, of the body from the mind, and so it must follow; nation against nation.

Now, as I argued throughout this talk, the very central feature of the artist type, the authentic, creative person is their UNWILLINGNESS to separate reason from their intuitions, their passions from their deliberations, the material presented to them via their conscious processes from the materials given them via their dreams and fantasies.

The authentic artists unwillingness to be reduced from this fuller range of mindfulness and affiliations, to tamer, smaller, saner, (so they say) dimensions, makes us, could make us a most valuable member of society, for rather than being merely the decorators of the society we are now, we could offer the most essential teaching for a new a more balanced and coherent society.

How does this personal and thus societal transformation happen as a consequence of the creative process, when it is allowed to run its full and unmitigated course? Because the creative process, when allowed to be fed by the entire range of mentation, inherently, draws from both the subconscious and the conscious processes, from memory and from imagination, from our histories and our desires, from our calculations and our spontaneities.

When all of our mindfulness is reunited, this critical mass of awareness, now coherent and no longer bifurcated, becomes heightened, more acute, and can PERCEIVE THE PATTERN THAT CONNECTS, that otherwise goes undetected for all the foreground noise of the rich clatter of the world as it appears on the surface.

And so we come full circle, back to the work of MONDRIAN, who had the same intention: to peer so hard and so undivided at the world so as to be able discern how it all fits together, and how every single portion of the whole is significant and contributes to the whole. And this is what we don't know now, and this is what we must learn now. It is also what artists, artist types could contribute if they only knew what the creative process actually entails, and what art could be for; yes, to decorate the lives we have, and to T R A N S F O R M our lives to become the people and 

the society that 

         we desire 

                  to BECOME.

~ Peter London

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