Wednesday, May 26

On Meaning and Naive Art

Today I went to a critique in which the various heads of the art department critiqued my work of the past year and gave me ideas for directions in which I should go with my art. They were not too fond of the manuscripts I've been doing lately.

Let me first say: Much of their criticism was warranted, and I will take most of their advice. The pages are the wrong size, my compositions need work, and my plain craftsmanship needs to come up another hundred notches.


One of the main critiques of the manuscripts was that it was "naive art," like that of Howard Finster. It was then stated that I couldn't get away with that, having had actual art training. Over the course of the interview, it began to seem as though "naive art" really meant "simple images that everyone understands." Well....What's wrong with that? I make art to communicate, and so use forms that communicate easily. Just as no speaker would stuff his mouth with lettuce while speaking, neither do I desire to conceal my meaning from anyone.

It was also said that it is not legitimate art to try to reproduce manuscripts when that age has passed. Why not? Maybe then I should just be a craftsman (craftswoman? craftess?) making beautiful things because they're beautiful and people like them. I see nothing wrong with it, and many things right with it. Why should art have to push the envelope ever farther?

So. What do I do? I refuse to make meaningless art. I do not think that anything meaningless can be art. I will work on my craftsmanship, I will try new materials, and I will try something new with the manuscripts. But I refuse to give up the symbols by which I speak. I will not be mute. The great artists have always used archetypes and ancient symbols to reach the depths of their audience. Tolkien, as well as Dante, used the image of the pure woman (Galadriel, Beatrice) as a bringer of grace. Eliot, as well as the medieval mystics, uses the image of roses and fire. I will not cut the symbols from their meanings and make my own. That which is truly new and unique is cut off from everything else and fades away. Lewis says it best in The Abolition of Man:

"A theorist about language may approach his native tongue, as it were from outside, regarding its genius as a thing that has no claim on him and advocating wholesale alterations of its idiom and spelling in the interests of commercial convenience or scientific accuracy. That is one thing. A great poet, who has 'loved, and been well nurtured in his mother tongue, may also make great alterations in it, but his changes of the language are made in the spirit of the language itself; he works from within. The language which suffers, has also inspired, the changes. That is a different thing - as different as the works of Shakespeare are from basic English. It is the difference between alteration from within and alteration from without: between the organic and the surgical[...]It is the difference between a man who says to us: 'You like your vegetables moderately fresh; why not grow your own and have them perfectly fresh?' and a man who says, 'Throw away that loaf and try eating bricks and centipedes instead.'

Those who understand the spirit of the Tao and who have been led by that spirit can modify it in directions which that spirit itself demands. Only they can know what those directions are. The outsider knows nothing about the matter. His attempts at alteration, as we have seen, contradict themselves. So far from being able to harmonize discrepancies in its letter by penetration to its spirit, he merely snatches at some one precept, on which the accidents of time and place happen to have riveted his attention, and then rides it to death - for no reason that he can give. From with the Tao itself comes the only authority to modify the Tao."

I cannot and will not wrench the symbols to do my bidding. I must be content to sit, study, learn, and meditate, and learn how to use symbols properly.

God grant that I be forgiven for badmouthing Thomas Kinkeade all these years: we both just want to make beautiful things that lots of people understand and like.

God have mercy on me. Speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.

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