Lesson 15: Understand That Art Is Not Just for Looking At
Art does something.
Navajo sand paintings are also pleas to the gods. Photo: Geoffrey Clements/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
In the past 100 years or so, art has been reduced to being mainly something we look at in clean, white, well-lit art galleries and museums. Art has been limited this way, made a passive thing: another tourist attraction to see, take a picture in front of, and move on from.
But for almost its entire history, art has been a verb, something that does things to or for you, that makes things happen. Holy relics in churches all over the world are said to heal. Art has been carried into war; made to protect us, curse a neighbor, kill someone; been an aid in getting pregnant or preventing pregnancy. There are huge, beautiful, multicolored, intricately structured Navajo sand paintings used in ceremonies to ask the gods for assistance. The eyes painted on Egyptian sarcophagi are not there for us to see; they are there so the interred person can watch. The paintings inside the tombs were meant to be seen only by beings in the afterlife.
Have you ever cried in front of a work of art? Write down six things about it that made you cry. Tack the list to your studio wall. Those are magical abracadabras for you.
THE LION MONUMENT - Lucerne, Switzerland
I guess this is the closest thing to crying in front of a painting that I’ve experienced. I’m not the only one…
The Lion lies in his lair in the perpendicular face of a low cliff—for he is carved from the living rock of the cliff. His size is colossal, his attitude is noble. His head is bowed, the broken spear is sticking in his shoulder, his protecting paw rests upon the lilies of France. Vines hang down the cliff and wave in the wind, and a clear stream trickles from above and empties into a pond at the base, and in the smooth surface of the pond the lion is mirrored, among the water-lilies.
Around about are green trees and grass. The place is a sheltered, reposeful woodland nook, remote from noise and stir and confusion—and all this is fitting, for lions do die in such places, and not on granite pedestals in public squares fenced with fancy iron railings. The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is.
— Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880
I was far away, standing in the rain before the sleeping lion of Lucerne, a colossal, noble, stoic lion carved from the rock of a low cliff. The rain fell, obscuring tears. I knew that I would see Sam again somewhere in the landscape of dream, but at that moment I imagined I was back in Kentucky, with the rolling fields and the creek that widens into a small river. I pictured Sam’s books lining the shelves, his boots lined against the wall, beneath the window where he would watch the horses grazing by the wooden fence. I pictured myself sitting at the kitchen table, reaching for that tattooed hand.
A long time ago, Sam sent me a letter. A long one, where he told me of a dream that he had hoped would never end. “He dreams of horses,” I told the lion. “Fix it for him, will you? Have Big Red waiting for him, a true champion. He won’t need a saddle, he won’t need anything.” I headed to the French border, a crescent moon rising in the black sky. I said goodbye to my buddy, calling to him, in the dead of night.
Patti Smith (on Sam Shepard.)