Debt to the Dead
I've never had the sense that I could claim a sort of exclusive authorship in my work as painter. We are all products of our time, of influences that shape our understandings and our creativity.
In his essay The Relevance of the Beautiful, Hans Georg Gadamer discusses a key difference between a unique piece of art and any object that is endlessly reproducible: the artwork is a one-off creation, instead of a mere work which can be copied and loses nothing in translation into multiples. He speaks of a genuine piece of art as something before which the artist stands precisely as anyone else does—namely, as a unique object that never existed before and which cannot be replaced or copied. In this case the artist stands in relation to her art much as a parent does to her child: "I have not created you; you came through me, not just from me." But for this to happen, the artist must stand in a tradition that lends meaning to her work. Hence, the very uniqueness of the art is a dependent thing—dependent upon a past, even as it moves us into a future.
This quality of being irreplaceable and unique is pivotal to art, Gadamer says, and is related to the fact that a genuine piece of art is not simply a veiled message or meaning or didactic idea. Rather, an authentic work of art represents or incarnates what it is and has been—and therefore a piece of art "adds something" to the world in the sense of "excess of being." Gadamer speaks of the artwork as "containing sense"—as though we might contain a remembered experience of colour or light or form and keep that sense impression from simply fading or escaping into nothingness.
Do I, as an artist, actually know or control this aspect of my art?
My experience since childhood is that no, I do not have conscious or willful access to this aspect of art-making. When this quality of true newness or uniqueness descends on my work, as an artist I am in awe and have never felt comfortable owning or claiming that I have somehow made this happen. I remember, at the age of twelve, bringing my first real work of art downstairs from my room and showing it to my father. It was a large, four-foot-tall charcoal drawing of a 14th century sculpture by Claus Sluter of the prophet Isaiah from The Well of Moses.
My dad said to me, "Bruce, you should be very proud of yourself for having accomplished this!"
I replied to him, "But Dad, I didn't do this, " after which I tried unsuccessfully to explain to him that I had had an experience in the making of the drawing of something larger than myself being expressed or created through me. My father was sympathetic, but confused by what I said and simply shrugged his shoulders in a friendly way. "That's just Bruce, being Bruce."
That was forty-five years ago now, and I have been making art all this time—and never have I had the sense that I could claim a sort of exclusive authorship in my work as painter. I've also always felt that the mystique of the Promethean artist—the lone genius who births a masterpiece in utter autonomy—is a pernicious idea. The Romantics prized this notion of genius to the point of absurdity and a subtle form of intellectual dishonesty.
We are all products of our time, not autonomous "captains of our souls." We are products of conscious and unconscious influences that shape our understandings and our creativity. Acknowledging our debt to the "dead poets" is pivotal, I feel, and tantamount to obedience to the fifth commandment—to honour our parents (and by extension, our cultural and religious patrimony).
In another section of his essay, Gadamer goes on to speak of the artist's debt to tradition:
. . . as finite beings, we already find ourselves within certain traditions, irrespective of whether we are aware if them or whether we deceive ourselves into believing that we can start anew. For our attitude does nothing to change the power that tradition exercises over us.
He goes on to discuss the possibilities of a robust understanding of our situated-ness:
For of course, tradition means transmission rather than conservation. This transmission does not imply that we simply leave things unchanged and merely conserve. It means learning how to grasp and express the past anew. It is in this sense that we can say that transmission is equivalent to translation.
And this is my parting thought: our debt to tradition (whether conscious or not) ought to make us humble enough to acknowledge our debt to one another, as well, in the making and "using" of works of art. We are, all of us, both transmitters and recipients of the tradition as it lives in us, offering us, as we embody it, something authentically new.
And this new song is precisely about the past as contemporaneous with the present. We live among the dead in this communion of saints and sinners.