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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Towards a Faith-Based Practice of Art: a short note of thanks to Mr. Apology

Theory + Practice by Fischli and Weiss
In the last 15 or 20 years the word practice has taken on a new depth of meaning, particularly as the word is now frequently used to describe a wide range of creative activities.  It has become common if not fashionable for painters and sculptors and poets and novelists to think and speak in terms of their creative practice.  As kids growing up we used to think about and speak of practice in a very different way.  Back then it was a matter of routine and drudgery, like the finger exercises we were forced to do on the piano after school.  We understood practice primarily in a negative sense – it was only worthwhile because we were told it might be the route to Carnegie Hall at the end of the day. 

But in this more contemporary usage – the word practice has taken on an enlarged and more positive significance.  We speak of creative practice in the same sense that the word it is used by Zen monks and Jesuit novitiates describing their day-to-day spiritual life.   Practice in this positive sense lies much more at the heart of the creative process in the same way it is accepted as integral to spiritual faith. It is not so much a means as an end in itself.  In the traditional western framework (by which I mean to say the framework I grew up with in America of the 1960’s) we practiced hitting fungo or played scales on the cello solely in order to prepare for a performance or some other significant future event, which would be “real” as opposed to practice.  But in the more contemporary sense of the term, we really pursue our artistic practice as a path unto itself.

Much of this shift in thinking and in our lexicon, I believe, is due to the increasingly widespread influence of various eastern traditions, and in particular Buddhism, across the broad landscape of American culture.  For at least 50 years now there has been a significant degree of overlap between various creative communities and Buddhist sanghas, with a long list of prominent avant-garde artists who are active Buddhist practitioners or fellow travelers, of one stripe or another, from Jack Kerouac to John Cage to Jasper Johns and Brice Mardin.    And more and more, at least among my circle of friends, it has become increasingly common for creative people to include meditation as an integral part of their creative process.  In fact, it seems increasingly common for creative and spiritual practice to begin overlapping, to become part of a single more integrating life experience.  When that happens it brings an entirely different dimension to your creative life.  Creativity is no longer simply a matter of following your passion.  Of course, it’s something you can still feel passionate about, but it also goes beyond passion and takes you right down into the inner most code of your personal operating system – it’s the way you begin to find and express new meaning from day to day.

I think this represents a change much for the better in the way we understand what it means to be creative – it heralds something of a new age in which spiritual and creative practice come together as one.  It leads us towards creative work that is far less driven by the dictates of the market, and towards art that is more attuned or responsive to the illumination cast by an inner light.  This is what I believe it means to be working towards or practicing a faith-based art.  It does not require or entail an artist-practitioner to adhere to any particular set of beliefs or dogma – our only dogma or dharma is that which flows from the creative practice itself.  We become fully committed to using our artistic practice as a way to engage with and learn more about the world, as a direct extension or integral part of our spiritual practice, whatever that may happen to entail.

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 For me there is another significant way in which my creative pursuits have acquired a distinctly spiritual dimension.  I believe that creative insight or vision is very often passed down through a distinct lineage, from one artist to the next.  This kind of personal transmission is certainly familiar to those who have engaged in an eastern spiritual practice, where spiritual insight is passed down in precisely the same a way, in a direct handoff from master to disciple.

I know many artists for whom the seed of inspiration was first nurtured by close association with a spiritual and artistic mentor.  Quite simply, there’s no substitute for the knowledge that you can glean up close from watching an inspired artist at work in the flesh, breathing the same air and directly observing the creative process as it unfolds.  It is a form of knowledge that unfolds in a wordless fashion much like the truth of the Flower Sermon. In my case, the artist who has inspired me most  -- sad to say – is not someone I ever had a chance to meet personally, even though so much of my current life is directly shaped by his genius.

Mr. Apology, Allan Bridge
I am referring to the artist Allan Bridge better known as Mr. Apology.  Valentine’s Day is his birthday and this year he would have been 72 years old.  He died in an accident in 1995.  His death for me is a source of many mixed feelings and meanings.  Tragic in the full sense of the word – the way Euripides understood tragedy – Allan was an artist who was literally consumed by the brilliance of his vision – he gave everything of himself to his work and ultimately it destroyed him.  His masterpiece was a conceptual art project called the Apology Line, which he launched in 1980 and then devoted the next 15 years of his life to nurturing and expanding into the world’s first electronic community – a community that predated the advent of the Internet by more than a dozen years.  He did it all with twisted pair copper wire and answering machines he bought at Radio Shack and then jerry rigged to suit the purposes of his artistic and spiritual vision – to provide a safe haven (which he operated entirely outside any established religious, cultural or legal framework) where anyone could call and apologize for whatever was troubling their heart or soul.  Many thousands of people did.  You can read more about Allan and his incredible work by clicking here.

I say Allan’s death is a source of mixed meaning for me in part because his life story is both inspiring and a cautionary tale.  In his later years he grew deeply frustrated and depressed, as he had devoted the entirety of his creative energy and identity over a period of 15 years to a work that ultimately failed to draw attention or support from the cultural establishment.  He built this thriving community – in which he stood at the center, the absolutely vital cog in the operation, requiring his complete attention night and day – and yet he was positioned in the shadows and stood in isolation from all the other members of the community.  Mr. Apology ultimately remained an anonymous and brooding figure, an aloof and less than human presence pulling the levers of the machine.  Not only that, but Allan never figured out a way to make the effort pay, in practical terms, or to provide himself with a means of support to continue with his work.  The accident in which he died was entirely avoidable except for the fact that something vital inside of Allan very likely had already died – in a Pygmalion like way he ended up becoming drawn in and consumed by his own creation. 

That a faith-based practice of art can lead an artist towards darkness as well as light is something I have struggled with myself in recent years.  The pursuit of a creative practice may be an organizing principle for an individual artist but that doesn’t mean the rest of the world (or any meaningful part of it) is going to embrace the artist’s vision or work.  Therein lies a huge difference between what it means to engage in spiritual practice as part of a sangha, where the religious community you’re a member of is at least in theory there to provide succor and support, in contrast to an artistic practice, where the artist really has no organized community to provide the equivalent sort of reassurance or safety net.  Much more typically the artist must forge a path forward in the face of indifference, struggling to navigate a path towards personal truth, without running aground on the many surrounding dangers.  The longer one pursues a creative practice in isolation, the harder it becomes not to succumb to a sense of despair.

 This is a poem I wrote several years ago with Mr. Apology’s work and ultimate fate very much in mind:

Ode to Truth

Poetry entails
A spiritual practice
If nothing else as
The accidental byproduct
Of the relentless pursuit
Of a full and fair description
Of simple but ineffable truths

Which may be found
In the oddest places
Quite unexpectedly and
By the most ironic of means

Though sadly it may end up
Cutting us most deeply
If we should fail to realize
In our admiring gaze
It’s a two-edged sword
We hold aloft in our hands

Whether or not Allan’s work ever receives the broader recognition it richly deserves, the spirit of Apology lives on in countless ways.   I try to comfort myself with this awareness when I consider the very limited audience I’ve been able to find for my own writing over the last 15 years.  Faith-based-art possesses a real and practical power to move us forward in our lives, no matter how an artist’s work is received in their own place and time.  And the message and meaning of a creative practice may be passed on, from one person to another as a form of living truth, no matter how high a price an individual artist ends up paying for pursuing and cultivating the faith.

That being said, I remain incredibly grateful to family and friends for every scrap of emotional support I am able to glean along the way.  Qui transtulit sustinet is the motto by which I try to operate, whether translating Tang poetry or writing my own poems, from one day to the next.

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This essay is an excerpt from my new book, still very much a work in progress, the working title of which is The Little Book of Nothing.   Please click here and add your name to my mailing list if you are interesting in hearing more as this book progresses. 

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