Thursday, November 5, 2009

Rivers of Light and Oceans of Light

I'm heading out of the country this afternoon until November 14th, and I'm not absolutely certain I'll have consistent Internet access while I'm gone. If you've been reading this blog, well, first of all - thank you! Thank you, and write more comments!

But also, do check in and see if I've managed to post anything. I apologize for your wasted time if I haven't.

Obviously, while I'm away from my work, I won't be able to update you on the minute-by-minute details of what I'm up to. But by god, I can go on talking about art all day long.

I'm thinking about the impulse to make art. For me, it started as a simple thing: it was simply what I naturally did. Over time, this first impulse remains, but it has become layered with other influences and motives.

I'm not sure how it is for you, but I philosophically reject the doctrine of original sin. It seems like an absurdity to me, because morality is a question of choice. Without choice, there can be neither virtue nor vice. Original sin posits a vice that pre-exists in human nature. I am willing to concede that human nature is flawed, even tragically flawed. It may contain the predisposition to evil. But if good and evil are to mean anything at all, it is impossible for human nature to be stained with evil itself from the outset.

However, as I get older, I'm beginning to sympathize with this doctrine from an emotional perspective. The world does seem ruined - I too seem caught up in ruin - and I am in frequent company with a sense of my shortcomings and a feeling that I must be redeemed. I am oppressed by a burden of guilt, formless and pervasive: I have not done enough, I have neither taken nor given enough, I have not loved well enough.

On the other hand, very swiftly after I sit down at Spring Street and begin to draw, I am rejoined with my initial art-making impulse. I do it because it is what I do. All doubt and ambivalence dissolve, all distraction and fear take flight. There is nothing but the sight in front of me and the paper below me - there is nothing but light, falling on bodies, cascading down bodies. O majesty of form, I think, in these very words, and frequently, you rivers of light and oceans of light.

In this tiny universe, I am remade as pure sight, and the model is remade as purely seen. On the chariot of sight, I am able to enter in the city of knowledge of what humanity is, shimmering and brilliant. Nothing that is ruined cannot be unruined, and therefore nothing is ruined. It is all purified and redeemed.

These states of mind - the foreboding and despair of guilt, the dazzling light of redemption - have drawn me increasingly to Caravaggio. Caravaggio carries out in the story of his life the ideas that persist in me; a thuggish murderer, a desperate fugitive, a purified penitent. But who cares what the man was? He was able to transubstantiate his life into his work. The work is all we can have of him, all he can give us. Consider his "Incredulity of Saint Thomas":

Every theme I have discussed here is present in this painting. Look at Thomas's face - stunned by the experience of the miracle. How could a man be so stunned, if he is not a man who has been abandoned by hope? Look at him and his companions - aging, haggard, ugly. Their cheeks and brows are hardened by corruption and loss of hope. Look at that soft, feminine Christ. His mouth has opened slightly, the skin on his cheeks is drawing up: Thomas's touch is hurting him. But he is intent on guiding Thomas's hand, and his brow is smooth - he is resigned to the pain, because the pain is the least thing to him, compared with the redemption that he is able to give beneath the broad wing of his love. And winding amongst the four men in this scene is the light, the rivers of light and the oceans of light. Caravaggio has fused the redemptive light of sight, that art is able to capture, with the redemptive force of his faith. For him, they are one thing, and the physical phenomenon of light expresses his ardor for the spiritual grace of his belief.

I am not a Christian, but because I am subject to doubt and hope, when Caravaggio speaks, I too am moved.

This is not the only force involved in making art. Over time, I'll have more to say about my ideas regarding the other forces. I'll have more to say about Caravaggio too. There is a reason that Thomas looks stunned, and that his companions look corrupted, and that Christ looks pained, yet calm. It involves a particular understanding of the human face on a concrete technical level. Once you know what it is, it's not hard to make use of it, yet very few artists do.

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