J.F Martel describes in his book Reclaiming Art the experience some may have had in the presence of a created work, be it a piece of music, a film, dance, theater, a painting, a moment in a novel, a poem…
The experience is one where the work actually captures you where the emotional reaction is such that you believe that the world you thought you knew is somehow different now, now that you have crossed paths with this creation. That this work is actually having a conversation with you or perhaps speaking to you, acutely and individually just you. As if it were alive, as if it had meaning that only you could decipher.
Martel suggests that this experience is not necessarily caused by the intention of the creator or performer but that it is something that is breaking through, something that has a living presence. Now he describes this in conjunction with great works of art – he uses a friend’s encounter with a painting by Van Gogh as one example. I’ve had something strange and powerful happen with one of my paintings, the one featured above. In no way do I think it falls into the category of ‘great’ or even very good. I cannot look at it without critically going over everything I think is wrong with it.
Yet a couple of years ago it was in a show at the studio where I take classes regularly. I invited some new friends to attend the opening. After one couple had arrived and had meandered around looking at different paintings I discovered to my amazement that one of them had been so overcome with emotion after standing arrested in front of this piece that tears were flowing down his face. He tried to express what was happening inside to cause such a reaction but could not adequately explain only to say that it felt like the woman in this painting had pierced his heart. As he described it, for him this was a life changing experience. I was incredibly humbled that anyone could feel this from looking at one of my paintings. Later I stood in front of it hoping to get a taste of what he had experienced…Of course nothing happened. It had no effect on me whatsoever. But I looked at it as a gift and a mystery of what could happen from something that I was a part of in creating. To this day I still don’t understand what happened that evening but I accept it as something I was privileged to witness. I’m thankful for that.
There is an old phrase that goes, ‘something that takes on a life of its own.’
As Martel says in his book describing the process, “It is more than a creation: it is a creature.”
JF Martel’s recently published ‘Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice‘ opens with the following manifesto –
“Art is the name we have given to humanity’s most primal response to the mystery of existence. It was in the face of the mystery that dance, music, poetry, and painting were born.
Since the dawn of the current era, art has been under threat.
In the place where it belongs on the cultural landscape,
two idols stand like golden calves demanding worship:
Pornography, the use of aesthetics to manipulate
through desire; and
Propaganda, the use of aesthetics to manipulate
Even where true art is made, powerful economic and political forces are there to subjugate it to one of the idols.
The work of art is apolitical and free of moralism. “The artist,” Wilde said, “is free to express everything.”
It is precisely the absence of political and moral interest
that make art an agent of liberation wherever it appears.
Art opposes tyranny by freeing beauty from the clutches of the powers of this world.
True beauty is not pretty. It is a tear in the facade of
the everyday, a sudden revelation of the forces seething
beneath the surface of things.
Only the revelation of beauty can save our world.
The artist is always and for all time a seer, and artistic creation
is always and for all time an act of prophecy.
The artist does not choose the prophecy. Rather the prophetic
shines through her work. It comes from elsewhere.
The artist therefore needs enough courage to stay
true to the work at hand. Even greater courage is
required of those who to whom the finished work
is given, for their interests will always recommend
dismissing the vision for fear of its implications.
Only through art can human beings express and share the
archetypal powers that shape the universe.
To abandon art would mean forfeiting the gift of vision,
which, by all appearances, was given to humans alone.
To reclaim it might enable us to recover our faith in
this world, and to act in accordance with that faith for
the benefit of life on earth.”
“I think the weird is present in all great artworks, if by that we mean works that lays reality bare instead of placating us with illusions.” – J.F. Martel
(From the publisher)
“Part treatise, part critique, part call to action, RECLAIMING ART IN THE AGE OF ARTIFICE is a journey into the uncanny realities revealed to us in the great works of art of the past and present.”
“Received opinion holds that art is culturally-determined and relative. We are told that whether a picture, a movement, a text, or sound qualifies as a “work of art” largely depends on social attitudes and convention. Drawing on examples ranging from Paleolithic cave paintings to modern pop music and building on the ideas of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Gilles Deleuze, Carl Jung, and others, J.F. Martel argues that art is an inborn human phenomenon that precedes the formation of culture and even society. Art is free of politics and ideology. Paradoxically, that is what makes it a force of liberation wherever it breaks through the trance of humdrum existence. Like the act of dreaming, artistic creation is fundamentally mysterious. It is a gift from beyond the field of the human, and it connects us with realities that, though normally unseen, are crucial components of a living world.”
“While holding this to be true of authentic art, the author acknowledges the presence—overwhelming in our media-saturated age—of a false art that seeks not to liberate but to manipulate and control. Against this anti-artistic aesthetic force, which finds some of its most virulent manifestations in modern advertising, propaganda, and pornography, true art represents an effective line of defense. Martel argues that preserving artistic expression in the face of our contemporary hyper-aestheticism is essential to our own survival.”
“Art is more than mere ornament or entertainment; it is a way, one leading to what is most profound in us. RECLAIMING ART IN THE AGE OF ARTIFICE places art alongside languages and the biosphere as a thing endangered by the onslaught of predatory capitalism, spectacle culture, and myopic technological progress. The book is essential reading for visual artists, musicians, writers, actors, dancers, filmmakers, and poets. It will also interest anyone who has ever been deeply moved by a work of art, and for all who seek a way out of the web of deception and vampiric diversion that the current world order has woven around us.”
I have just ordered this book, ‘Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice -A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action‘ after reading the interview (which I highly recommend) with the author J.F. Martell on The Teeming Brain website with Matt Cardin. Martel describes the book as
“an attempt to defend art against the onslaught of the cultural industries, which today seek to reduce art to a mindless form of entertainment or, at best, a communication tool. In Reclaiming Art I argue that great works of art constitute an expressive response to the radical mystery of existence. They are therefore inherently strange, troubling, and impossible to reduce to a single meaning or message. Much of contemporary culture is organized in such a way as to push this kind of art to the margins while celebrating works that reaffirm prevailing ideologies. In contrast, real works of art are machines for destroying ideologies, first and foremost the ideologies in which they were created.“
Martel, in an article exploring some of these themes before the publication of his book, explains how mass media seeks to control and limit how we perceive what our horizons actually look like.
“In so-called open societies, ideology is propagated using the techniques of art. That is to say that the aesthetic realm—the domain of feeling—is the locus where the potentialities of the social system are actualized or condemned. Freedom of thought finds its counterweight today in the systematic control of feeling. One of the primary functions of the mediasphere is to concoct moods, which then become determining factors as to what is deemed possible or impossible for society as a whole.”
“…in a very real sense, mass media is a spiritual machine for colonizing the psyche. It establishes an emotional climate favoring the replacement of living thought by the memes of the market. Achieving this has less to do with outright censorship than with aesthetic framing. It isn’t the content of what is presented that matters, but how that content is portrayed. The secret lies in the theatre that encodes an event, the smoke and mirrors that are used in framing it, the implicit judgments it can be made to serve and the poetics that narrate it. In the course of the last several decades, modern media has woven around us a tangled web of clamorous illusions and dancing lights whose function is to divert, confound, and bewitch an increasingly anxious populace while inuring it to the realities of life outside the “green zones” of Western privilege.”
“Authoritarian societies recognize the power of art, which is why they so brutally censor their best artists. Free market societies, on the other hand, adopt a strategy of suppression by appropriation. We tolerate artists so far as they make themselves useful as purveyors of distraction or producers of luxury commodities to be hawked in staid galleries and concert halls. Artworks that criticize the tenets of the system are accepted precisely because by their very powerlessness, they implicitly condone the practices they outwardly condemn. The fight is fixed: you can say anything because whatever you say won’t make a difference.”
“Art is neither a system for transmitting information nor a mode of self-expression. It does these things no better than any number of activities. Art is the seizure of a vision that exceeds language. It captures a slice of the Real and preserves it in an artifact. The work of art is fractal and open—an inexhaustible well of meaning and image overflowing the limits of the communicable. It is a way to the wilderness of the unconscious, the land of spirits and the dead. If great works of art are prophetic, it is because they disclose the forces that seethe behind the easy façade of ordinary time. I am not just thinking of the plays of Shakespeare and Sophocles here, but also of the poems of Emily Dickinson, the songs of Bob Dylan, the choreographies of Pina Bausch, the films of David Lynch. All of them are oracles.”
“The shaman enters the priestly society of the ancient world and is called a prophet. She enters modern industrial society and is called an artist. From the shape-shifting sorcerer painted on the cavern wall to Mr. Tambourine Man jangling in the junk-sick morning, a single tradition flows—backwards, like an undertow beneath the tidal thrust of history. This tradition tears us out of the system of codified language and returns us to the dreaming depths where language first rose as the idiot stammerings of poetry. The shaman, the prophet, the artist: each knows the way lies not in the dry processes of logic but in the snaking courses of the heart. If art makes use of ideas, concepts, and opinions, it is only to subsume them in the realm of the senses, to push them to the knife-edge of lunacy where the primal chaos shows through the skin of objects, where all judgments are silenced and beauty, naked and terrible, is revealed.”
“Art doesn’t begin when you realize that you have something to say. It begins at the hour when there is nothing left to say, when everything has been said, when what must be said is unspeakable. Deleuze described the artist as a shapeshifter and a seer. He or she “has seen something in life that is too great, too unbearable also, and the mutual embrace of life with what threatens it.”* Art, in other words, is a way to the sacred. It places the aesthetic in the service of something that transcends instrumental reason.”
At the end of the end of the interview with Cardin, the author is asked what advice he has for those who are moved and inspired by his writing. He responds,
“…all I can manage is an appeal to the individual reader to look at art again. We need to let go of our cynicism and disenchantment and recover our capacity to believe, our power to affect and be affected. Beyond this, there is one quite concrete action I think every new monk should take, and that’s to keep a dream journal. Recording our dreams awaken us to the imaginal, even as it awakens the imaginal to us. The result is always an abundance of vision.”