Camus told us that the universe is indifferent. I never really knew what to think of that until I became an artist. Having been raised in the convenience of contemporary Christianity in middle class America, spirituality seemed to necessarily be fraught with mystery and was intentionally difficult to understand. That was fine with me. Though in a somewhat gradient-like manner, I decided to move away from the avenue of spirituality which I was raised with. I found god not under the threat of rapture or through the guilt of my own imperfection, I found it in other places. I found it through my own endurance of suffering. I glimpsed it under the night sky, belly up on a damp trampoline in the backyard of my first love. I saw it when I started to learn how to write music. I had glimpses inside the long halls of museums. I sometimes found it in college lectures. It seemed to linger around loud and fast conversations in crowded bars full of smoke and ideas. Slowly, over time, these glimpses grew and grew to include a myriad of religious philosophies, scientific truths, metaphysical and psychedelic truths alike. Recurring in places like Egyptian hieroglyphs that I studied in school. In my physics homework. In geometry class. In punk rock music. In arguments. In grocery stores. In Buddhism, Spongebob, Hinduism, Islam, dancing, Judaism, Christianity. I had made some friends during my early years in college who practiced Paganism and a variety of witchcraft and magic. The ever-evolving new-age section of the Half Priced Books store near my house as a teenager… It was all fine with me. it was everywhere and at the time it was confusing.
On the one hand, I was able to explore all kinds of versions of spirituality. But on the other hand, no matter how many places I found these breadcrumbs, most of them never spoke about another. No one was talking about the overlap between these worlds. If they did, it was briefly mentioned and not regarded as being of significant importance. How intricately humans had craved the same sacred connection to their version, their linguistic version of the unknown. And the funny thing is, a lot of what I took away from each of these things, be it from an ancient spiritual practice from some far reaches of the Earth, or if it came from the regurgitated sermons of a contemporary organized spiritual practice – they all basically scratched at the same things. Love one another, seek truth, be honest with yourself, ask for forgiveness when you transgress. But no one was concerned with this beautiful and universal aspect of human kind and of our enormous similarity in this regard.
I do not, by any means, wish to assert a position of expertise of these religions and spiritual practices, and for the sake of convenience I will drastically generalize their teachings. So, in general, and with regard to the world’s larger contemporary organized religions, there is not usually a focus to explore the nature of the universe, as it is (save for Buddhism, within which this is an element which is acknowledged as being significant to the path of enlightenment, and which is also not technically considered a religion). And by this is mean to say that there is not a significant focus on exploring and embracing the unknowns in the universe as a part of a path towards enlightenment. There are however, very often, instructions for how to deal with the things that exist obviously and completely in our world, for which we have no concrete explanation… Where do we go when we die? Why can my heart both love and hate? Why are we here? This usually comes in the form of concepts like faith or the will of god. But these blanket statements truly obscure what I believe to be one of the greatest ways to reach spiritual heights of enlightenment and inner peace.
Dark matter, dark energy, black holes, the depths of our oceans, even a dark path or alley… the unknown is something that bewilders us. Our fear of the unknown is almost so innate that we don’t really even consider the option of holding any other perspective. But this is truly where the line exists between our world and all that lies beyond it. When investigating this ratio, I would like my reader to imagine our world on Earth, as we know it, as being the size of the small dots of the colon between the numbers on the face of a watch, and for all that lies beyond our world to be the size of the entire Earth.
For some people this means the afterlife or the realm of god or perhaps a cyclical pattern of life and death. I understand it as an orchestra of worlds which operate through entirely alternative systems of physical laws. Where time and space may orient themselves in completely new ways. I get it. That’s not an easy thing to think about. It can be unsettling. But something that I’ve noticed is that there seems to be some kind of threshold where we decide when some ‘unknown’ contains enough elements of the known that deems it worthy of our investigation, or at least our curiosity. What defines this threshold? What determines its’ value? Past experiences? Learned cultural values? Innate and universal truths? Can this threshold be moved or challenged? If so, how can we challenge it? And what will happen if it surpassed? Is there a threshold for how many thresholds of the unknown a person can pass through?
I remember a professor once told me he could always categorize and understand his students by one of two things that they would say when they encountered something which they were unfamiliar with. There were students who would say, “I don’t understand this.” And then there were students who would say, “Can you explain this to me?” This difference suggests that there are those who describe the state of the world as they see it, and then there are those who question it. He had a theory that those who were willing to disclose the limits of their knowledge were more likely to change the way that they saw the world. While the other group would at least have a harder time accepting change. I believe that those individuals who choose to expose themselves to the challenge of questioning the world as they know it are oftentimes the same individuals who would perhaps have no quarrels asking, “Can you explain this to me?” And it should, I hope, be visible to us as artists that many of the individuals who arrive, however they may, to experience our art are, on some level, willing to ask this question.
Moving forward with this assumption, I invite you to receive the responsibility of what we do as artists. Because, responsible we are for the repercussions of all ideas which we birth into this world. Maybe it is more obvious for someone who creates things which, in their essence, call out to be understood. Plainly, my example is, of course, abstract expression. It should be noted, however, that this sense of responsibility is most certainly not restricted to the arts alone. And moreover, we should ensure that it is not (but that is a point for another discussion). Our responsibility lies in how we receive those who are willing to ask questions, because we too, at some point, required the soft kindling of our art teachers or perhaps the voice in our heads. And we too have found encouragement, in one form or another, to ask these questions as well. And while, in some cultures and families this is more encouraged than in others, our decision to bring forth into the world something which had not previously existed is something that sort of labels us as active askers, of these questions. What questions? Any questions. What is life? Why does my heart have such a capacity to break? Why must we suffer? Why do we have the ability to question, at all? What is god? What would happen if we lived in a world where ___________ ? The question itself is not of equal importance, in this blog post, to the nature of being able to understand the value of questioning, in an of itself; both as someone who asks questions and who is asked questions. Because this is precisely where we can begin to open a dialogue between ourselves, our work as artists and the world in which it exists, should you be fortunate enough to have that experience. This dialogue is where revolutions are bred. It is where social change takes its’ roots and where injustices are explained without the nuances of words, in a language that people of all backgrounds and ages are welcome to investigate.
Even in my brief time as a painter who had something of an audience, I have watched myself very quickly grow tired of hearing some questions about my paintings. Why this color? Why that title? What inspired you? How do you decide when it’s done? I often felt, as many young artists I guess do, as if my art should be able to speak for itself. And it does. For me. Not necessarily for those who encounter it. So, then I asked myself what it was that made me believe that there was some type of devaluation to my work if it necessitated an explanation, whether through a written statement or while answering a question that a gallery patron may have thought of. I couldn’t find any good reason why I should withhold some elements of what allowed me to create these works from those who may have not had the unique fortune of privileged experiences that I have had. A large part has been my white privilege, and in turn many other things like my education and my ability to be curious and stubborn about where my interests lie. Or the luxury of time and travelling to explore books and movies and museums and galleries which have all so definitively contributed to the wealth of understanding which I use each time I pick up my paintbrush.
So when we talk about the things we hear people say about art, or the things they do not say, we must consider first their presence to expose themselves to the art in the first place. We must acknowledge not only their personal history of opportunities which may have contributed to their ability to find meaning in a particular piece of art, or say, their music taste. But we must too acknowledge that the wealth of experiences which have spanned generations of experiences contribute largely to a person’s interest, ability, willingness, and desire to engage with the world of art to begin with. Families which have spent hundreds of years under the burden of colonial oppression obviously have had less opportunity to explore the luxury of contemporary art in the western world, as it exists in galleries and tight-knit circles of private school education and ‘freedom of expression’ throughout the last 150 or so years. And this encompasses all of the different shades of oppression and inequity which has kept hidden the beauty and wonder of art from a myriad of peoples across nations and throughout history.
I myself have found a number of comments and accusations about what my art means or what it looks like or what it reminds someone of, to be highly insulting and degrading. I have been met with examples of reduction and am left speechless at the different ways that people have learned how to share hate towards me, it is not every day, but it happens. This is naturally an emotional phenomena, but I have learned over time to understand these comments in a different way. I could altogether disregard the comments and write them off as ignorant and meaningless. But I feel a duty to bring this art into the world, and I feel an obligation to ensure that the messages are at least given ample opportunity to reach the viewer, and if an explanation can help facilitate that process, then so be it. But if there are situations where our art is given untrue meaning or interpreted in a way which we had not considered, or even hoped to avoid… it is not our right to become upset and attached to this meaning which another has found as a result of our artwork. It is simply our responsibility to bring forth into the world the ideas which we have been able to express in the ways which we are able; painting or music are beautiful examples, but sometimes all a person can manage is from behind the counter of a gas station, or on the filthy floor of a subway station. These experiences are not less valuable because they are less valuable to the general population’s ideal experiences. And as such, the feelings or ideas which a person finds as a result of your work, be it positive or otherwise, this is as much in your control as the weather is. The only part of this process which should be carefully and meaningfully executed within the limits of our abilities is the act of creation. And if you can say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the intent and the energy fed into your work is honest and pure in its’ intent to explore your own experiences, whatever that means to you, and does not infringe upon work which has already been created then there is nothing more you can do! It’s meanings are infinite and should not be limited to your own, though with a little help, they can surely influence the understanding of a piece, should you be concerned to have a say.
Because after all, why do we make art, to begin with? Not necessarily with the intent of influencing others, but influence others does it still. And I think it’s incredibly important to acknowledge this and to embrace it as a part of a larger social context. Because I’m sick of living in a society where corrupt government officials and celebrities who abuse their status acheive the highest recognition in our society. The doctors, the philosophers, the authors, the teachers, the artists… those who fight and question and suffer are not always forgotten, in history but while they are alive are often ignored and ridiculed for what they question. So I invite you to ask why this is. And I invite you to never stop asking. Because the universe is indifferent. And that’s not a bad thing. It just means that we cannot cast the responsibilities which are truly ours and ours alone onto some dark and mysterious unknown, call it by whatever name you like. We create the meaning. You create the meaning. And so as above, so below, or within and without or whatever.