Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Re-Enchantment of Art 5: Instruments of Revelation

(Some random notes and quotes from recent travels and readings.)

At Carlsbad Caverns National Monument, there are a couple of small art galleries in the visitor center devoted to art inspired by the caverns. One of these rooms contains nothing but photographs by Ansel Adams. Adams didn't think his cave images, made for a large project of photos of all the national parks, were very successful: Adams always worked with natural light, and of course the caves had to be lit artificially for his photos.

On the wall of the Adams gallery at Carlsbad is the following quote:

Our time is short, and the future terrifyingly long. Believing as we must that things of the heart and mind are most enduring, this is the opportunity to apply art as a potent instrument of revelation, expression, and perpetuation of wilderness activities and moods. Through art of brush, pen, and lens, each one no less than the other, we possess a swift and sure means of touching the conscience and clearing the vision.
—Ansel Adams

Art as an instrument of revelation. Art as a means of touching the conscience and clearing the vision.

Art is kenotic. Art is prophetic. Art is revelation. Or at least, art can be all these things. It doesn't have to be, or need to be, yet it often is. Art as an instrument of revelation.

My own photographs often feel to me like splashes of cave paintings on the walls of rocks much older than time. I often feel as though all I am doing is waiting to see what is there, and what will happen next.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen . . .
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin.

—Bob Dylan

Stories in fiction and poetry are lies that can tell deeper truths. What passes for human interest on a daily basis is self-involved and deadening by comparison. Most self-involved fiction isn't revelatory, but deadening. What use is criticism if it doesn't likewise enliven the art that it discusses? What use is criticism at all, for that matter? Far better to go on making art than to talk about it. Of course, the old clichéd saying does hold truth to it: Those who can, do; those who can't, instruct.


Carlsbad Caverns; infrared photo

It has happened that we have been afflicted with a basic deprivation, to such an extent that we seem to be missing some vital organs, even as we try to survive somehow. Theology, science, philosophy, though they attempt to provide cures, are not very effective "In that dark world where the gods have lost their way." (Roethke) They are able at best to confirm that our affliction is not invented. . . . Abstract considerations will be of little help, even if they are intended to bring relief. Poetry is quite different. By its very nature it says: All those theories are untrue. Since poetry deals with the singular, not the general, it cannot—if it is good poetry—look at things of this earth other than as colorful, variegated, and exciting, and so, it cannot reduce life, with all its pain, horror, suffering, and ecstasy, to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint. By necessity poetry is therefore on the side of being and against nothingness.
—Czeslaw Milosz

Poetry deals with the singular. It can also deal with the universal, with the cosmic, with the fully human, but it gets there via the specific and singular. Poetry doesn't have to be didactic or hectoring to be true, or tell the truth. Sometimes the most prophetic poems are those that show us what is going on, that just present the truth as it is lived by real people.

Nothing that isn't beautiful can be true, only the true is lovable.
—Paul Cezanne

Cezanne was an extremist in many of his views, an uncompromising artist who made enemies by refusing to change his ways. But he was often right. There is a lot to his comment here, that whatever truth is, it is always beautiful. Or can be perceived as beautiful.

The simple truth is, those we try to explain away all mysteries fail utterly, simply because there are always larger mysteries that cannot be explained.

Art as an instrument of revelation: What we see that is beautiful contains truth that sometimes we don't want to confront. But we must.

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2 Comments:

Blogger diana said...

Hello, I am writing an essay about Terence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' connection it to the Deep Ecology movement and I just happened to come into your cave. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about art and mystery.
Love and light from Portugal, more exactly Sintra, a magic mountain...
Diana

3:31 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, thanks for dropping in. I hope you share your essay at some point, I'd like to read it. Malick's "The Tree of Life" has become one of my favorite films.

12:34 PM  

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