Jake: Can we explore the fuzzy grey line between secular and religious art? Why does a portrait of Mark Twain you have made get labeled secular, but a portrait of Moses is religious?
Barry: I am not sure there really is a difference between secular and religious art, and if there is is sure enough is “fuzzy.” There is certainly a difference in subject matter, which is why some folks (not me) would call my portrait of Mark Twain secular and of Moses religious. In either case I struggle with the same problem I always have to deal with when making an image, and that is the orchestration of the elements of which a picture is made: line, value, texture, rhythm and so forth. Those basic elements never change, no matter what the subject matter or the intention of the piece is. Flannery O’Connor said it best when she said that if a work of art succeeds as a religious object, or political or social, it succeeds because it succeeds as ART first (emphasis mine). I think it was Picasso who said that all art is religious…no, he said that all art is erotic. Hmmm, perhaps we can play with that idea somewhere along the way. Anyway if Picasso didn’t say it, then I just did.
I am reminded here of something that Ingmar Bergman said: “Regardless of my own beliefs and my own doubts, which are unimportant in this connection, it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans: ‘eternal values,’ ‘immortality’ and ‘masterpiece’ were terms not applicable in his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility.” (Sorry I cannot source that for you. A friend sent it to me a long time ago without any source cited. It’s from an essay called “Art as Worship.” I’ll attach the whole thing.)
On the first day of class when I taught at RISD I would ask the students to watch me as I worked at the chalk board. My demeanor was faux serious, though they did not know me well enough at that point to see the faux. I very seriously told them to watch every gesture, every action that I made whilst drawing, even if it’s observing my scratching myself in an untoward manner. I went about drawing an apple, always an apple (because it’s so trite and gave me the opportunity to use the old cartoonist’s trick of putting a “window” on the finished drawing as a highlight. So, after a few minutes of this I stepped back, “admiring” my work, then dusted the chalk from my hands and asked “What is that?” Answers were never quick. They always suspected that something was up. Finally somebody would offer, “It’s an apple.” “BULLSHIT it’s an apple,” I replied, or softly shouted, as I turned to the chalkboard and smeared the drawing with both hands and turned back to them with chalky palms extended towards them, “It’s chalk. It’s not an apple. It was never an apple. It cannot be an apple any more than an apple can be a drawing.”
So the only possible difference, it seems to me, is in the intention of the artist and subject of the picture. And since “religion” is rife with so much ambiguity and mystery, who’s to interpret? Who’s to say that this painting is religious and that one not? I think I’ve come full circle here.
Jake: If God is the ultimate creator, how does our creation connect to that?
Barry: If God, whatever or whoever that is, created the universe and all that’s in it as the tenets of most religions have it, then “God” is indeed the ultimate and only Creator because–if the tenets are to be believed–the universe, and all that’s in it, were made out of nothing.
It’s pretty obvious to me that no human creators can do that. Everything we do have precedents. Somewhere, somehow there is an antecedent no matter how distant, subtle, or vague. It is this notion of a “mind” behind the creation of the universe and all that’s in it, alongside music (Bach, Mozart, Montiverdi) and ecclesiastical architecture (Chartres, Notre Dame, St John the Divine) that keep me from being a professing, perhaps even a proselytizing atheist.
We also make things from materials that pre-exist: paint, clay, stone, metal, etc.
When I work, I bring new objects into existence. Every time I make an object, I am making an object that has not been before. However, I am very aware that the idea for the image came from somewhere else: perhaps from a movie I saw, a photograph, a painting, a novel I’m reading. There are so many avenues for influential ideas, both conscious and unconscious, that it is impossible to sally forth in the world and not completely free and independent of these influences. And, therefore it seems to me that there cannot be anything from human creativity (a word, btw, that I despise) that is entirely free from antecedent.
What is possible, it seems to me, is to amalgamate these disparate influences into a form that is a variation on an old, precedented form or forms. I think this is true even in the instances where objects are made to be affronts to established canons.
Thus I cannot say that I believe that my “creativity” is in any way a matter of paralleling that of the “ultimate creator.” I am not sure that there’s any connection at all for that matter. I do think, however, that folks who make things, who make serious objects that, right or wrong, we call “art,” have a clearer understanding of the manner of creating and inventing, and by extension understand better how “God” works.