“Honing our craft with the aim that it might one day match up with and do justice to our inner ramblings is an ambition I hold to be sacred.”
A World of Ideas
“You are an explorer, and you represent our species, and the greatest good you can do is to bring back a new idea, because our world is endangered by the absence of good ideas. Our world is in crisis because of the absence of consciousness.”
– Terence McKenna
BY MARTIN WITTFOOTH
Some time ago I sat down for a conversation with a handful of fellow painters and a question came up that we were all called on to answer in turn: What is “humanism”—what does it mean to you, how would you personally define it?
I’ve had some time to think on that question, and here is where I’m at, more or less. What makes our species fundamentally unique—what seems to set human consciousness apart from that of our animal brethren—is our concern with ideas. In almost all places in the world where you find our species loitering about, you’d be hard pressed (or very nearsighted) to look in any direction and not see a physical representation or manifestation of a human idea.
Take the entire innards of my Brooklyn studio, for instance, and what you find is a somewhat disorganized cornucopia of ideas in virtually every corner of the space—the human imagination realized in the physical, in objects intended to serve some purpose that might allow or aid my own myriad ideas to take shape.
We’re unique in that we build our lives on the scaffolding of countless human ideas—and these are what allow our own ideas to be realized. Furthermore, intentionally or not we produce a legacy; we document our presence and passing by word and deed. We can see our own history looking back at us from practically every nook and cranny of the world that we inhabit—where choice comes in is how we allow it to inform and inspire our decisions in the present, and what we hope to leave behind in our wake for the future.
There’s that old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” I feel like we’re poised at a strange moment in history as I write this. The momentum of human ideas has been building up centuries immemorial at a rather steady pace, like a train slowly riding up a shallow incline on the side of a mountain.
A very short time ago we crested the ridge, and found a nearly vertical slope on the other side, along which we’re now charging at a breakneck speed. The problem is that the engineer bailed somewhere along the line, and there’s nobody onboard who has any real idea of how to either stop the acceleration, or to navigate the rails to lead us to safe passage.
We’re living through a time in which the real mothers of all invention—ideas—have gotten an immense dose of pharmaceutical grade speed. On one hand, this acceleration heralds the advent of an incredible time of discovery, of understanding, of the flourishing of individual and collective ambitions, and of global, collective connection. On the other hand, many ideas that perhaps set great things in motion didn’t take into account their time-tested consequences, and we might be on the verge of seeing the fallout of this short-sightedness in many areas of our lives.
Many other ideas are simply “bad,” and when allowed to run unchecked can, and do, wreak havoc. Bigotry, religious dogma, despotism, global warming denial and on and on—these are all what I would call “bad ideas.”
That said, I believe—or think I believe—that we’re well armed to face many of these challenges. But to do so, as McKenna eloquently points out in the passage above, we’ll need to wake up to where we’re at, and start thinking up some “good ideas,” and sharing them with those who care to listen.
Something that a white canvas, a block of marble, an empty page, an open stage, a microphone, and any other tool of creative expression share in common is that each is a blank slate for an idea. To freeze an idea into art is to give it a voice to communicate with, and for an idea to take wing it needs to be witnessed, experienced, contemplated upon, reacted to: communicated.
We’re all vectors for what we believe in, and I hold that it’s a worthwhile pursuit to express these ideas so as to contribute to a dialogue, or to hold up a mirror of critique to those ideas that we may disagree with. In fact, I believe we owe it to ourselves—the “us” that makes up our species: our ancestors, our contemporaries, our children—to make a stand on something that we believe in.
Art is the means by which we have always resisted compliance, chipped away at the foundations of “bad” ideas, and shaken society when it threatens to fall into drone-like slumber. This is not to say that artwork primarily focused on the expression of the artist’s concept of beauty—say a still-life, a landscape, or nude figure—or art that explores a deeply personal domain, as another example, isn’t contributing to this conversation—the conversation of “good ideas.” Quite the contrary.
I believe that any art that moves the observer toward some elevated state, whether emotional, philosophical, or cerebral, can only help us along our course of figuring out this mess we’re finding ourselves in. However I think we ought to resist escapism, to simply bury our heads in the sand.
Art really may yet have a say in how things turn out, in raising consciousness. I would argue that sacrificing yourself into your art requires courage, and the more honest your message, the stronger servings of it you’ll have to stomach.
William Blake once said, “Truth can never be told so as to be understood and not be believed.” I believe that there’s truth to this statement. In admiring a great works of art I have always believed that I sense the artists within them. They managed to trap a part of themselves inside their creations, some true part of their being, some idea they genuinely believed in.
Honing our craft with the aim that it might one day match up with and do justice to our inner ramblings is an ambition I hold to be sacred. I realize that’s a loaded term to throw around but to me it means, simply, “truth”—the pursuit of it, the expression of it, the love of it.
This essence can be captured in just a single brushstroke, or perhaps in the invisible thread that ties together the entire body of work created in an artist’s lifetime. We inevitably come to the table with our own baggage, our own tastes, and our own experiences, so the wealth of variety in the potential of interaction with a work is limited only by the size of its audience. That is exactly why art holds such an importance for me, and especially the instances of it which aspire to express genuine, idiosyncratic ideas.
Art reminds me that we tread in two worlds: that of the majestically individual, unique and autonomous, and that of the collective experience, and our desire to contribute to and connect with it. Our ideas are inevitably borne as a result of this connection: no idea—no art—is made in a vacuum, no matter how lonely your studio might feel sometimes.
Made manifest in whatever we choose to create, our own ideas can help to inspire and give shape to the ideas of others, and that is a beautiful notion that often brings me to the easel. ~M.W.
The above article was originally written and published in 2013. Connect with Martin Wittfooth at martinwittfooth.com.
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