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Friday, 17 April 2015

The Artwork

A man existed who, like many of us, felt the urge to say something—only, he did not know what he wanted to say. He tried pottery, woodwork, poetry, song, painting, and other crafts, but he left each one more dissatisfied than the last. And so he set out on a search.

One day he fell upon a land of ripening grains and rich golden fruit and planes of rolling clover and daffodil. He thought, Here is my inspiration

This man felled trees and carried hefty stones and gathered driftwood from the great shores, gathering his materials into a shape. For many moons he worked upon it and at last he stood back. His sculpture was curved and supple despite its hard materials.  It had motion in its stillness. And for the first time in his life he felt satisfaction.

Upon resting, however, and viewing his work from all angles and in all moods and lightings, his dissatisfaction returned. He craved intensity—something that would distinguish itself further, say something more definite, bear his mark more clearly than the wood and stone could.

The artist dug deeply into the soil and found clay; this he purified and dyed with roots and wildflowers. He built his structure and tore it down, built it up and tore it down, until finally before him stood a monolith wholly distinct in color, texture and form from the fields and groves and running brooks around it. And the artist was satisfied.

Soon villagers from the surround area came to look. One of them informed a wealthy merchant, a connoisseur of foreign art; he came, and commented on the artist’s prowess. What defiance! the merchant said. There’s as much genius in the piece as in his choice to build it here, in the midst of such natural beauty. These words of praise soon soured in the artist’s mind. Again he grew discontent.

With the money the merchant had given him he bought mirrors. With these he covered his sculpture so that when a viewer looked upon it she would be forced to look at anything but the sculpture. Again the villagers came to look. They were awestruck, but also confused. They sent for the merchant, who in turn stroked his beard. Then he snapped his fingers. I will send for the art critics!

They came, two dozen at least—for the merchant was wealthy and influential—and pondered the great mirrored sculpture. Soon they were murmuring excitedly among themselves. A profound statement! they said. Subversive! The mirrors redirect the gaze to the beauty around us. ‘Don't look here, at my conceited artificiality,’ it says. ‘Look around you, at nature's quiet grandeur.’

The artist’s instinct for dissatisfaction did not fail. It was not fair of him, he knew, for the art critics had understood him perfectly. Yet he felt an emptiness.

Then the artist had another idea. In the secret of night he dismantled his sculpture, leaving only the ring of stones that had surrounded it to demarcate the spot on which it had stood. Again the villagers came, then the merchant, then the art critics. Yet none of them could discern what the artist was saying by it. They stared at the empty spot, raking their beards and murmuring.

And so the artist again felt displeased, even confused. He thought to himself, I do not want to say anything. Or perhaps I do, only I want nature to say it for me. Reflecting this way he came upon the truth: what he wanted was for the villagers and the merchant and the art critics to look around them and feel his same awe. And yet there they were, staring at the patch of dead grass, fixating on emptiness as though it were a statement. And the artist thought in despair, How can I say that I have nothing to say without that being a statement?

Then the artist had another idea. The stones that formed a ring where the original sculpture had been he removed. Time passed; people soon grew tired of musing at the patch of dead grass and wandered off. Less and less people showed up and then none at all. Soon everyone forgot even that there had been anything special there, where now a patch of new grass grew. This pleased the artist somewhat. At least I am not misunderstood, he thought.

Of course his satisfaction could not last. He looked around him and saw people busy at work, swearing and yelling, heads bent to the ground, thinking about silver coins and leaky roofs and vexing servants and ill-cooked meals. And again he felt an urge to say something. Indeed, this time he knew precisely what he wanted to say. He wanted to give people a glimpse of the sublime—to push their chins up and have them muse at the shape of clouds for so many hours that stars would creep stealthily into the sky and elicit cries of delight on being noticed.  He wanted to yell at the villagers and the merchant and the art critics, Your lives are not everything. All around you opens eternally a beauty so vast and deep that beholding it you would fall on your face and weep. The artist wanted them to see this for themselves—not to be dragged along daily by the brute necessities of survival and social advancement but to be buoyed up each moment by this miracle.

It was beauty that would change the world the artist desired.

The artist cried aloud. Does such beauty even exist? What art can do what I want it to do? What message could be understood the way it wants to be understood—as dispensable? What sculpture would not gather merchants and critics to it and hoard attention, raise interpreters, gather a cult of appreciation around itself?

Then the artist had another idea.

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