Deeper Than Skin Deep
Words come to us, as in photographs, through a multiplicity of means: prints (newspapers, magazines, journals;) electronic (documents, websites blogs, etc;) and sometimes we are privileged to have in our hands the original source material itself. Last summer The Scroll made a stop, along its nation-wide tour, to the Palace of the Governors Museum, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I took the opportunity to visit. The Scroll is, of course, Jack Kerouac’s original manuscript, typed in single spaced lines, on a continuous roll of Teletype paper, of “On the Road”, the seminal work of the Beat era. I couldn’t actually fondle its delicate, yellowed curls, since it was locked away behind an enormous glass-topped display case. Nor could I touch the Illuminated Manuscripts at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which I had viewed years ago, although they, and Kerouac’s scroll, deeply touched me. Bathed in pools of dim light behind glass frames, each one was a fascinating document of another time in human history, when men tried to put into the hard materiality of ink on parchment the things of the spirit.
I am reminded of the medieval icon, a graphic image whose visual as well as material attributes are carefully orchestrated during its complex and lengthy creation, to achieve some embodiment of the Divine using the mere elements of a fallen and corrupt creation. There is the reminder here of the parable of the potter (the creator/artist) and the clay (the work of art). And a corollary principle would be that the created is more than mere clay; that the designer’s intent is the spirit that resides within and animates otherwise sodden earth, base elements.
These thoughts resonate with me as I regard the visual arts, specifically photography. The work produced by the photographic artist is intended to induce an internal image within the viewer; not merely a mental image however, but it must also resonate at some deeper, spiritual plane in order to succeed in the goal of creating an aesthetic connection, across time and space, to untold numbers who may partake of the work into the interminable future. Since the power of the photograph no longer relies for its maintenance on the personal creativity of the artist after its completion, it therefore has endowed within it some intrinsic spirituality that is able to function self-sufficiently long after the artist’s role is fulfilled. We can ponder in deep appreciation the images created by artists long since deceased and yet these images remain as powerful as the day they immerged from the darkroom. Clearly there is something odd going on here, this business of the arts, wherein the act of creativity seems to resemble in a symbolic manner what we read of in Genesis, of life being created seemingly out of the inanimate and overtly non-spiritual elements of this material world; the dust of the earth becoming something that takes on a life of its own, that seems to be able to function, after its creation, independent of the Creator. It is the image of the artist as life-giver.
In our overtly hyper visual culture we can easily take for granted that the literary image is at least as powerful as is the optical. The reading of words and sentences resonate to induce parallel thoughts, which form mental imagery as vivid as the visual. Much less subtle yet equally complex is the photographic image. It, too, intends to induce a mental image into the viewer, but this mental image is induced through visual association with the literal photographic image itself. It must be clearly understood therefore that the mental image being imparted is not the visual literalness of the photograph itself, but rather something hidden underneath the veneer of the hyper reality of the graphic image. It is easier to grasp this concept with the written word, since the medium of writing lacks the visually literate mapping of correspondences to objective reality enjoyed by photography. The photograph serves to function similar in principle to the medieval icon: the surface veneer of the literal graphic image is a mere vehicle, skin deep, for a deeper understanding. Sadly, many creators and viewers of photographs alike have little or no grasp of this idea, and go about their business under the mistaken impression that the photograph’s visual literalness is all there is and nothing more; that there is no deeper spiritual implication to appreciate; how sad.
Sometimes, as Freud indicated, a banana is just a banana; sometimes (many times, in fact) a photo is just a photo, and nothing more; there is no life, no vision, imparted to the work, it being merely a technical exercise in the mechanics of photography and nothing more. The same can be said at times of all the arts, mere craft devoid of spirit, with cunning and craftiness as the only reward. It is when the artist has the distinct understanding, and firm faith, in the work of craft as being mystically imbued with a power to captivate and communicate that we begin to find true art. True art functions at the spiritual level because its material substance has been subdued for a higher intent, like those otherwise empty jars of clay, each with a flaming torch within.
As artists we have an imperative to comprehend this principle to its fullest. The work we produce must not be empty exercises in technique and craft, but must resonate with the fire from deep within. We must remain torchbearers, kindling alight those around us to renewed fervor.
In our contemporary, fractured culture we have created artificially divisive categories that separate completely the role of artist from spiritual practitioner into two entirely distinct fields of expertise. This is contrasted with what are considered “primitive” cultures wherein the artist-shaman function with a holistic oneness, their means and ends inseparably interconnected. We need this today: not some New Age gimmickry but the vision of the power of art and artists to heal and transform the human spirit. Art is the spirit of a culture; without its power the culture’s torch has been extinguished forever.