Pas de deux (a dance for two).
This body of work explores the conversation that occurs between us and a work of art. What happens when we truly engage in the presence of art. When we become vulnerable and in some sense inhabit it?
We are told that we paint best from our obsessions. One of my oldest obsessions is the story of art, and conversations with artworks of the past. Visual art (in common with the other arts such as poetry, literature, drama, music and so on) has the capacity to lift our spirit by calling our attention back to our essential humanity. When we engage with art, we are in some real way enlarged.
Art is about ideas.
Painting is a fairly solitary job, and in the process involves a lot of thinking.
The enterprise of painting begs the questions of our ‘human condition’. What is being, what is consciousness, what are we here for, how do we know anything. And how do we steer our course in life when so much is a mystery.
Hackneyed, perhaps, but always on our minds.
To the ancient Greeks, ‘natural history’ intertwined art with poetry, music, literature, drama and dance with the big questions.
Art forms take us to a bigger place. Hamlet’s “what a piece of work is man” and Prospero’s “we are such stuff as dreams are made on”.
The psalmist asks his God, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them” and Ecclesiastes notes that the Creator has “set eternity in the hearts of people”.
The dance or conversation that happens between us and an artwork challenges reductionist notions of being human. Art can remind us that, for all of our deep failings, we are made for much more than what we often settle for, individually and as communities. It speaks of dignity and nobility. We glimpse that there is a bigger story, a deeper music, a grander dance. And we are drawn to learn the steps. For me, art is at its most eloquent when it bears witness to our being in the divine image.
Joseph Kosuth once demystified the term contemporary art as being “works made by individuals intellectually engaged with and committed to their own time.”
What are the challenges and pressing issues of living in ‘our times’? They include the broken bits. Such things as the politics of hate that gives oxygen to Donald Trump, our moral bankruptcy demonstrated in incarcerating asylum seekers, a domestic violence epidemic that kills two Australian women per week, neglect of the poor, demonization of Muslim neighbours and LGBTI folk. And so on. But there are also the great bits. Such opportunities as those afforded by the Human Genome Project, biomedical research, an exquisite natural environment, our connectivity through social media, and significantly improved debate and support for those living with mental illness.
What does art have to say into contemporary conversations?
In much of our current public discourse on life’s big issues we seek to build our own rebranded humanism, but we sometimes feel inarticulate. Art can shape the conversations with tactile metaphors that inform our human-ness, our personhood. Art can give us a language and a vocabulary for deeper things than negative gearing and the Kardashians. I am not so naïve as to think that art solves the big issues or leads inevitably to flourishing of individuals or society. But art echoes something of the image of God in the human condition and challenges us to ask the deeper questions. Then the dance really begins when we enter a pas de deux with the One, to quote the ancient Greek poet Epimenides, “in whom we live and move and have our being”.
It has been argued that we make sense of our world primarily by quantitative learning (the hard sciences) and qualitative learning (social sciences, the humanities and politics). But there is also learning or research through practice. This is where art comes in. We learn about nature, the cosmos and human society through the intuitive practice of making art. Through doing.
Finally, my aim in the Pas de Deux work is to explore a little further that which gives dignity and nobility to our personhood. It probes what we could shyly refer to as the exceptionalism of being human, the “stuff” of Shakespeare, the Psalmist, and of our “good angels”. It is not to ignore our demons. There is a time for optimism, as long as it is not cheesy or sentimental or Brian Cox cocky. Down the track I will try to paint in the difficult terrain of our dysfunction.
But the last word for now is from the wonderful American author, Marilynne Robinson. Robinson asks, in The Givenness of Things,
“After all, where did our high sense of ourselves come from? From what we have done and what we do. And where is this awareness preserved and enhanced? In the arts.”