6) Arrogance and humility. Practicing art in the context of community is an exercise in balancing arrogance with humility. Humility, because you are called upon to listen patiently, to identify the injuries in the community psyche most in need of healing. Arrogance, because you must apply your judgment and experience, sometimes challenging what people say they want.
When the community mural movement reemerged in the US in the 1970s, the artists thought their task was to give voice to communities. All they’d have to do is hold public meetings to ask what people wanted on the wall, recruit some local youth and start painting. What they found was that the meetings generated a flood of clichés – mostly based on mass media, pop culture and advertising. It became clear that their mission was not to give space to the immediate thoughts of the community but to its dreams. The artist had a more active role to play.
In an old house, where the pipes are made of lead, you should let the water run from the faucet for awhile to clear the toxic lead before taking any to drink. You have to draw it up until you are getting water that was below and beyond the old structure of the house. Culture is like that. What is most readily accessible to people is laden with the superficialities and often toxic messages that make up the static of daily existence. The task of an artist is to tap into deeper sources. These can be accessed through your organic or deliberate relationship with the community or through the pathway of your own dreams. The deeper you go below the lead pipes and the city streets the closer you get to the common waters we all draw from. That is what distinguishes the politician from the leader. A politician deals in the water that comes out of the tap. A leader taps into the aquifer and gives voice to the dreams contained therein.
7) Art as discovery. Artists are always copying things. That’s because we don’t know what everything looks like until we study it. If I draw a hummingbird I need a model – usually a photograph (have you ever tried convincing a humming bird to sit still for a sketch?). By that process I learn how a humming bird is structured. By watching it move I learn about hummingbirdness as a spiritual process.
In the European Renaissance it was not uncommon for artists like Da Vinci to also play the part of botanist, anatomist or astronomer. Their meticulous drawings of the muscles and tendons of the body or the details of the leaves and seeds and stamens of plants expanded the knowledge these living things, of the distinguishing features of their variety, of pathways by which latent energy became motion.
This led also fed technology. Da Vinci’s schemas for flying machines drew from his study of birds. Artists discovered that if they allowed a small pinhole of light to enter a dark room, the image of the outside scene would be projected – upside down – onto the wall. This allowed them to trace the scene onto a canvas or paper attached to the wall. This would evolve into the camera. “Camara” in Spanish means room (as does the English “chamber”). A camera is a small, dark room (next time you snap a digital photo, thank an artist). Charles Darwin drew his way into an understanding of evolution, not just meticulously cataloguing his observations but also doodling rough concepts of how processes might interact.
8) The structure of seeing. Art as process, product and relationship reflect and shape understanding in other ways. A Chinese painting is a report on the artist’s progress in achieving a balanced and grounded life. Arab tile work gives expression to a vast universe of crystalline symmetry and precision. South of the Sahara the art and music celebrate of a universe of sonic and visual rhythms that shift and improvise over a constant heartbeat. The artistic creations from every corner of our cornerless world shape and express our worldviews as deeply as language.
9) Art as possibility – revisited. I read, once, a news story about a young girl who had been kidnapped, abused and abandoned in the locked trunk of a car beside a country road. She somehow managed to work herself free, unlock the trunk from the inside and get herself to a nearby farmhouse to seek help. She was later asked how she had managed to maintain a clear head in the face of such a frightening ordeal. Referencing the fictional heroine of juvenile detective novels she replied “I asked myself what Nancy Drew would do.”
Stories are containers in which we store, develop and share power.