Here I reflect upon one of my sculptures using Thomas Martland’s aesthetic categories from his book, Religion As Art. In doing so I hope to provide a means to better understand what is religiously possible in an artistic medium. (Italics are used to indicate words describing Martland’s major categories, such as, Innocence, Fascination, etc.)

Martland makes this statement about the artistic and religious process:

1. First… the artist or religious person has a sense of insufficiency or dissatisfaction with whatever constitutes a current understanding of what already is. Second, this leads to my suggestion the artist and religious person willingly detach themselves from these current understandings, either by sacrificing that ego construct through which they understand the world or by suspending judgment. Third, I conclude that the artist or religious person each willingly creates or finds new understanding by incorporating experiences that they had previously ignored. (P. 25, Innocence)

To establish this, Martland has quoted from a wide range of religious and artistic authorities. For example:

2. “(By me) is made a well-constructed raft,” so said Bhagavat,– “I have passed over (to Nibbana), I have reached the further bank, having overcome the torrent (of passions); there is no further use for a raft.” Dhaniyasutta II 4.21 (Innocence, pg. 16.)

Cyril of Jerusalem:

3. We do not declare what God is, but we frankly confess that we have no exact knowledge concerning Him… On the subject of God, it is great knowledge to confess our ignorance.” (Innocence, pg. 16.)

Anglican Book of Common Prayer

4. refers to God’s service as “perfect freedom” (Innocence, pg. 16)

Svetasvatara Upanishad

5. “He who knows God is freed from all fetters” (Innocence, pg. 17.)

Mundaka Upanishad:

6. “He, verily, who knows Supreme Brahman becomes Brahman Himself” (Innocence, pg. 17.)

Aristotle and Picasso: After relating the famous story of Picasso and his portrait of Gerturde Stein, Martland continues,

7. In one important context in which he uses the term, mimesis, Aristotle agrees with this characteristic of art. That context involves, first, his denial of the existence of an ideal world apart from our natural, every day world; second, his assertion that in its place there is only a concrete ousia, that which is common to individuals and which exists only in and through the individual species; third, his concept of the relation of ousia to activity (energeia), that kind of action in which the goals or ends are one with the action itself. (Innocence, pg. 17)

Paul Klee:

8. “I do not love animals and other creatures with an earthly heartiness. I neither stoop to them nor raise them to me. Rather, I first surrender myself to the whole and then feel that I stand upon a fraternal footing with all creatures of earth.” (Innocence, p. 24.)

In the second and third quotes above, it is clear that a confrontation with the “unknown” has occurred and is highly desired. This unknown might be that which often is called “mystery” in occidental religious tradition. It is not only an unknown wherein one may discover new knowledge in a scientific sense, but it is an ontological condition that describes our religious and artistic quest.

In the forth, fifth, and eight quotes certain characteristics of this condition are described in terms of freedom and a kind of unity, fraternity with all things. The reference to Picasso and Aristotle describe an “imitation” of activity that is at once the activity and the goal. The significance of this will be evident in the Shamanism and other traditional mysticism referenced below.

In the quote number six, a reference to our own divinity is made. From a Christian context, Athanasius says, “for he was made man that we might be made God.” (Truth-to, pg. 111)

Deer Window

Deer Window

Above are introduced some of the qualities that I would like to discuss about my own work that is the subject of this paper. The title of this painting is “Window.” It is the seventh in a series of “partitions” variously named, “Gates I, II, III”, “Fence”, “Doors I, II” and thus have an architectural reference as well as being sculptural and painterly works.

To begin this analysis, I shall mention some of the contributing elements that motivated me in making this work. In this series, individual pieces vary from being solid monolithic structures, to seemingly flimsy constructions such as the “Fence.” These are meant to engage both personal and universal references at once. They combine both painted, figurative, landscape abstractions and non-representational imagery with elements reminiscent of my own youth on a ranch where the construction of gates, fences and other farm structures utilized some of the materials with which I make these “Partitions,” i.e., wooden 2×4’s, wire fencing, wire ‘hardware cloth,’ roofing pitch. These were not only visible elements of my early life but even the smells, of sawn wood and tar, for instance, were for me evocative of formational experiences that contributed eventually to the finished works. As well, the themes in these paintings develop along lines referent to general religious evolution including Shamanism, Indian Tantra, and Christianity. In these I mean to express sympathy, even empathy, with 40,000 years of hard-won human consciousness as well as my own artistic and religious evolution that identifies so strongly with a larger cosmological scheme. If an artist has truly inculcated deep elements of art and of the human condition, then the art will be not only expressive of his experience but will, while activating the power of symbolic presence, create works that take on an actualized life of their own. Yet this, not in the usual pedestrian sense wherein the artist “is not there to explain the meaning, so the work must stand on its own,” but rather, that there will be in a catalytic relationship with the people who interact with it in a personal way. Thus, these works are meant to be and are “objects of power”; things with personality, intention, and effect. In this, they are more related with concepts associated with fetish, mandala, and icon, rather than the general run of the last 500 years of Western art history. However those distinctions are outside the scope of this paper. In this, the goal of this art is united with their being and their action. They are meant to connect people with “mystery.” A characteristic often traditionally ascribed to such encounter is this “freedom” mentioned above, as well as this sense of the “connectedness of all things,” and I would add “Life.” By this I mean, not only biological life, but Life in the largest sense of absolute meaning, the Spirit, i.e., direct encounter with absolute being.

The titles of these works are all architecturally structural but the traditional spiritual reference should be apparent. As mentioned above, two of the materials used in these works are tar and wire. The tar in combination with other elements serves not only as a natural sealant with many immediate cultural connections (i.e., fossil filled tar pits, birch bark canoes, material for the construction of roads, etc.) but tar operates specifically here as symbolic of death, disease, and the generative muck in which the proverbial and divine lotus roots to produce its metaphoric blossom. So we are dealing here with symbols of life and death, combined in such a way as to produce spiritual metaphor. But more than that, we are dealing with life and death as elements of existence characterized by an integrated engagement with the “life” of the “other,” non-temporal world in its relationship with normal historical consciousness. In doing so, is this symbolic action of drawing together diverse things, a “religious” act making its “bond,” or artistic action. (“Art,” whose Sanskrit root is ”to join.”) Is it other than that?

Innocence, Fascination ; we are pushed from the known to the unknown by the artistic genius.

This is what is necessary: in terror, to distance from old understandings; and to work to bring into existence that which has no existence. (Distance, p. 52-53)

Or, from Robert Frost:

My poems–I should suppose everybody’s poems– are all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless. Ever since infancy I have had the habit of leaving my blocks, carts, chairs and such like ordinaries where people would be pretty sure to fall forward over them in the dark. (Distance, p. 50)

As a thing in itself, does “Window” stand on its own to accomplish this end? I believe that at least one of the other works in the “Partition” series does, “Door I.”(NF Visual Arts #44.) “Window” follows such earlier works chronologically and might have less impact than the others since what it has, it shares with, even derives from the original breakthroughs of the earlier works. I have felt with it less of the distaste and insecurity (holy terror) than I did with both the original three-piece series, “Gates,” or the fourth piece, the monolithic “Door I”. I regard these to be successful works. But I do not know that one need feel such strong emotions every time, for every work of art. Admittedly, I did not feel myself moving into unknown territory nearly so much with “Window” as with others. I used the same materials as with the others; wood framing with wire and tar as well as a drawn image. So it was not an original combination for me. The whole approach of using such materials is obviously not innovative in terms of what other artists have done in the world of creative arts. Making Shamanistic objects is also not uncommon in the art world of the 1980s. Whatever the strength of the piece, it would have to lie elsewhere than innovation on a personal or public level.

Do derivative qualities of its creation distract from or add to the power of “Window,” its aesthetic impact, (something close to what Susanne Langer might call “virtual space”)? Do these distract from that other quality of engaging spiritual presence about this work as an “object of power?” Martland refers to a “Coalescence” in determining artistic quality.

…As an activity functions artistically or religiously, it displays the characteristics of innocence, fascination, terror, distance, and now coalescence. By that last term, I mean that “at-one-ness” of the activity itself with its acknowledged fulfillment. (Truth-to, p. 109.)

I do not know that I have enough distance from this piece yet to make such a determination. It would have to prove itself as having all the usual artistic content mentioned above as well as the Shamanistic/spiritual impact that I intend. Though, as I continue to reflect upon “Window,” I have come to gain more confidence in it. Even if it is derivative in relation to the other works in its series, it might finally have as much impact as any of the others, perhaps more.

Martland continues about the significance and insignificance of sincerity in this regard and then comes to this example:

We can say the same thing about Leonardo’s “Last Supper.” It is not about the Last Supper; rather the painting itself is the actual Last Supper; that is, it presents to the world a new understanding of that supper-event which is true to its inherited characters and they to it, a new understanding which the world now takes seriously and from which it continues its exploration into the supper’s meaning. (Truth-to, P. 118.)

This brings us to an interesting conundrum. I want my works to operate as “icons,” that is, to be occasions for contemplation as well as fresh understandings. According to one’s bias, one might regard contemplation as a direct experience of absolute things or one mediated by intellectual or symbolic systems. But the ability of the artwork to operate in either case seems to depend upon an audience able and willing to respond to the artist’s work in a productive way. (Which is Martland’s first plank of verification.) I have long endeavored to produce art that used the fundamental elements of certain visual media in a way that catalyzed reaction in the broadest community possible, (educated to the charms of modern art or not.) However, I do not think that an aborigine from the Australian Outback, for instance, would have much reaction to my work, though I might find his fascinating. So, on one hand, however I might try, I cannot produce work that will be so universal. And on the other hand, my interest, by its very nature studious and intellectual, prohibits me from participating in works created by a non-Western and non-modern mind in a more than superficial way. What I am getting to is that we always are operating in a arena of communication that is confined by those who, so to speak, speak our language. Yet, an aboriginal shaman would certainly believe that his art might be able to effect me very much because of the power of its magic. They have not separated their art from their religion, nor have they separated their religion from their practical sciences or applied epistemology, in this case, magic. So, the conundrum is really one of how we have come to view ourselves in the world. Generally, the Aborigine’s cosmology is integrated and our’s is not, if we have one at all. But does their art/religion have actual power or influence of any sort outside their own community? There is no way to prove that conclusively. Could mine? Since I have tried for that, what is it that I have come up with?

Martland’s system of verification has four “planks”:

  1. …interested people in a society must give those who claim to be involved in art or religion a chance to do what they are doing. In other, words they must pay attention. ( Pg. 140)
  2. …it is necessary that men check what they have come to see through this or that artistic or religious activity against the culture or tradition in which they function. (Pg. 144)
  3. …we must be willing to take the hint offered by the two preceding paragraphs and settle for a kind of experiential confirmation of artistic and religious activity as against the more familiar experimental method of confirmation. Only an experiential method of verification is sensitive to this ongoing process of cumulation and funding through which a culture or a tradition goes. (Pg. 150)
  4. Artistic and religious verification must come by making a decision which fruitfully, yet economically, contributes to that culture or tradition in which the challenged activities function. (Pg. 153)

How does “Window” fit into this? I find it hard to evaluate it separate from its fellows in the series. It, along with the others creates a whole environment. But as a single work, it uses the same materials and themes to discuss some nuances of the over-all intention. That is, in the “Window” the deer-god peers through the veils of human personality and the barriers of natural and artificial systems, represented by the layers of wire mesh, caging, wooden frame, and tar, to communicate its divine power to the world. But does “Window” actually communicate actual divine power on any level, Shamanistic, artistic, or altruistic? That remains to be seen. Here I believe is a fundamental aesthetic question. From where does the power to influence come? The art piece itself? The willingness of the audience to be influenced? Some muse favoring the artwork and audience with its mysteries?

If the aesthetic task is to push, to be pushed into the “tremendum” by the “tremendum,” (there, I would add, to discover salvific power sufficient to meet the demands of what I sense as the crisis of Being) then in this realm of terror and wonder, aesthetic or other conceptual evaluation is rendered meaningless. (See quote number 2.) Art becomes a vehicle to accomplish this move into the “boundless” freedom and power as described in the quotes above. Perhaps, art also becomes that ineffable experience itself. And in that it achieves its own contradiction by being an object bounded by the usual laws of physics but whose content is boundless.

Next Chapter: Introduction