An immense, entirely blank canvas stretches before the artist. Looking away, he busies himself with setting out his paints and brushes. Although he will not admit it, terror strikes his heart when he looks up at that vast, empty white space.
“What in god’s name will I paint?”
He hunts for his charcoal and puts on a fresh pot of coffee. He thought he knew what he would paint. After all how many dozen renderings did he prepare in his sketchbook? But now that he is confronted by this blank slate, he finds the muse has fled.
“How can I possibly create something from nothing?”
But I wonder— why doesn’t he ask another more fundamental question? Why bother to create? He doesn’t need art like food or water. Why is he driven, as if possessed by a mad daemon, to make something from nothing? Surely there are less demanding, more satisfying and remunerative activities.
This artist is not alone. For aeons painters, writers and composers of music have stood before the yawning chasm of the blank slate hoping and praying for inspiration. Surely the muse will reveal herself soon! Why do they torture themselves so?
Here’s a thought. We know that thousands upon thousands of myths have been created over the centuries and many may answer our question –why are we driven to create? Why is the muse so fleeting?
Here’s a possible answer. Just about every society has at least one creation or origin myth. People have always sought to explain how they and the universe came into being. The etching to the left is by the poet and artist William Blake. It’s an illumination in his Book of Urizen, which is a parody of the Book of Genesis, a great creation story.
These myths usually begin with a description of a formless, shapeless expanse apparently of “nothing.” It’s often called the void or abyss. But really, it’s not nothing. It contains the makings of the future universe. Often it’s called CHAOS. And so—we are compelled to bring order out of chaos and in so doing, we are creating something new and shaping our world as we see it.
When I read the creation story, I immediately thought that a modern day physicist might well agree with the description of how the universe began. It is the God particle [Higgs Boson] which brings order to this chaos or rather it creates mass out of this broth to bring the universe into existence.
And then I reflect that humankind has been pretty smart to have “divined” or intuited such a story [Book of Genesis] which may be not so far off the mark that science points out.
And so, perhaps we can say that unconsciously the artist is driven to re-enact this fundamental creation myth. He or she may have no idea why but the desire to create some order [the art] out chaos is overwhelming. Perhaps it’s an inbred characteristic of the human being.
I remember writing a passage in Night Crossing, the third in The Trilogy of Remembrance, in which the “hero” Alexander Wainwright, a landscape painter, meets an elderly woman, Miss Trump, on a train from London to Portsmouth. In their conversation, she suggests that, in his paintings, the space between the horse and the barn may look empty but she questions if that is really true. Maybe, she conjectures, that empty space is filled with the stuff of all creation—what artists use to make something. Just a thought but Alex, who at first mistook her for a garrulous old woman, is very impressed. I, too, must have been impressed with the creation myth to write that scene.
But are there other reasons the artist might have for driving himself so hard?
I think of art-making as an attempt to give life meaning. We seek and explore its meaning through making art.
So many people want and need to find meaning and purpose in life. Why is this such a huge concern? I expect if you don’t have a defined purpose to/in your life, it’s like being a rudderless boat on heaving waters. Many people satisfy this need for meaning with their relationships—love, friendship, place in the community—a sense that they are in some way making a contribution. And they are, of course, right.
But the artist is a peculiar soul. She must take from her surroundings and the resources within herself and create a work of art. And with that work of art, she creates meaning in her life and that of others. ‘”This is how I see the world and ME,” she says with justifiable pride.
When we take the two ideas together, we can see that–
we are driven to create by our need to battle against chaos of which Carl Jung says—
“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.”
Perhaps there really is no chaos. We just haven’t figured out the pattern yet. In that sense, it seems the creation or the created “thing” already exists. It is our job to unearth or recognize it and bring it to light. The muse, whom we so ardently seek, is hopefully there to guide us.
How do we do this? According to Jung, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” His words suggest that we need to loosen up.
But there is a huge reward awaiting us. Determined to find order in the midst of chaos, the artist creates something new out of “nothing” for himself and others. He satisfies that drive. Then, for an artist, that elusive “meaning” in life may be obtained through that very same creative act.
So we are forced to create by our need to re-enact the creation myth. In so doing, we bring meaning to our lives and the lives of others.
lBut the bar is set very high. Joseph Campbell, the renowned mythologist, will tell you the real artist is the one who has learned to recognize and to render… the ‘radiance’ of all things as an epiphany or showing forth of the truth,” But that is a subject for another post.
I spent some time looking for an image which would express the “radiance” I’ve had in mind while writing this. First I looked at all sorts of paintings by old masters but somehow they did not express the feeling. So I turned to one of my all time favourite painters Chardin–the painter of the simple, modest kitchens. Look at his still-life. Doesn’t an intense radiance emanate from the pewter cup, the glass and the fruit? I think when Chardin painted this picture, he found and expressed that radiance.
Do you think an artist can find meaning in life from the practise of his or her art? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to write in the comment box below and share this blog with anyone you think might be interested.
You can find all the novels of both The Osgoode Trilogy and The Trilogy of Remembrance in the carousels below or anywhere else online.
Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing.