On Thursday evening I attended a gathering of 14 local artists. We watched documentaries about four contemporary artists. We also drank a little wine, ate and talked about art. It was good to compare notes. It is a strange business – this business of art – almost as strange as the business of religion.
Art and religion are similar in many respects. The impulse to create and the impulse to believe start out pure. They each provide opportunities for us to extend ourselves beyond the ordinary. Each lures us with a little bit of magic and mystery but then each becomes more and more complicated when the very private acts of painting and praying are taken out in public. Both art and religion seem to gravitate toward fundamentalism and an us and them mentality. We divide up into Christians. Muslims, Jews, Impressionists, Realists, Abstract Expressionists, and so on.
When my granddaughter, Kiersten, was little she said something that I will never forget. I was babysitting her on a Sunday afternoon after she had attended church with one of her other grandparents and I heard her in the next room singing, over and over again, ‘I’ve got salvation and you don’t.” Each time extra emphasis was given to you don’t. I know that she didn’t hear those exact words in church but her innocent little psyche had condensed what she had heard into what is often the essence of both art and religion. The attraction of owning original art is that no one else owns it. I have a Jackson Pollock and you don’t. Any religion that tries to exist without the you don’t aspect in its belief system is as wobbly as a human being who tries to stand on one leg. So the person who just wants to be good, do good, make good art is soon confronted with all the different factions, each with what they think are well justified reasons for why they are right. This leads to the following questions: How can we celebrate the ‘I’ve got salvation’ part without the ‘you don’t’ part. Can everyone be right even though some are more successful financially than others? Is praying a waste of time if there is no God up there to hear the prayers? Is making art a waste of time if the product is not recognized as being superior to someone else’s?
In Africa the Benin tribe has a different attitude to their art – the finished product is not important – it is all about the act of creating. They handle and care for their tools with reverence. There are no galleries or promoters or agents. There are no ego trips. It’s sort of like being good, not so that we will be allowed into heaven, but simply because it is right. Imagine if God decided that only the souls of people who didn’t believe in heaven, but who had spent their life doing good deeds, would be allowed in! That would certainly guarantee a lot of elbowroom in heaven!