Home | Essays List

Chicago Artists' News, "On Second Thought,"May 2004, p6

Is a Luminary Possible These Days?

Robert Motherwell lamented that the best art is done in affirmation (as in Classical Greece and the Renaissance), but that modern life is so disgustingly materialistic and conforming that artists had to go negative. On second thought, it’s been over fifty years of this”anti” stuff, and enough’s enough.

Motherwell and other abstract artists insisted on the indvidual’s unique expression and on non-materialistic subject matter. Pop artists ramped up the focus on individuality and celebrity. Today celebrity status and individualistic routines are the norm. The question looms: How can anything, whether family, team, or whole people, hope to progress if everyone is being their own person and disregarding the good of the whole?

Over half a century of being against; and the nation is still quite materialistic. Perhaps a better strategy, as admirable as Motherwell’s art and ideas were, would have been for artists to pull society in a positive direction. As much as artists contribute to individualism and cynicism, to such a degree do they reflect cancer, whose cells think only of themselves, making war with the good of the whole body.

Yet, in a time as pluralistic and celebratory of the individual as ours, who could possibly stand up as a model for unity? Searching the word processor’s thesaurus for “hero,” the following response appeared “no meaning found.” Indeed! Who could be a hero to us, who live in a world unique in the history of the human race?

Can anyone be a guide in these times? Such a person would likely have had a strong democratic experience. That person would also have to live in a world at least somewhat multinational, to appreciate the need to respect differences. Being an artist would help, for the role of the artist as both outside the mainstream and yet an influence on that mainstream is a difficult role to appreciate. The beliefs of that person would need a strong foundation, or we might find ourselves following the whims of a false prophet. Finally, the person would have to be more a luminary than a hero. We might accept someone to illuminate the way, but likely would not want to slavishly follow some leader, no matter how heroic.

Where’s Waldo? Exactly! Waldo Emerson (he did not like to be called Ralph after he matured) rebelled against his doctrinaire training, understood how, as an American, he was different from the past, yet sought, and found, a center. He was a rebel with a cause. He was an artist who expressed himself without being snarky. He was different, yet he respected others and affirmed their shared nature. As society and its artists struggle to express individualism without tearing apart the commonweal, Waldo Emerson can show the way.

Frederick Turner, in an article in the May 2003 Smithsonian, writes:
A gift seems to have been granted to certain people in the moments in history we call renaissance. One can hear the gift in the voice of that time—a confident exuberance, accepting the tragic aspect of life, but also full of hope and belief; capable of a genial irony but devoid of cynicism and academic intellectual vanity. It is a voice that more cynical or exhausted ages find annoying.

Emerson’s “exuberance,” his affirmation, accepted tragedy. It was just a part of nature. Not the nature of a clockwork-like destiny into which puny humans were merely dust in the gears, but a nature of experimentation and chance and, especially, a nature that included us. “Nature who made the mason, made the house,” Emerson claimed We are not set against nature, nor above it. Therefore, we are not set against others or above them. This understanding that if we are wise in understanding all of nature we have a unified heart could inspire a modern renaissance. Environmentalists (Henry David Thoreau), feminists (Margaret Fuller), and abolitionists (Bronson Alcott) were Emerson’s disciples. Yet, it is hard to imagine Emerson accepting the contemparary extreme left or right, or swallowing the negative personalization of modern politics.

What can artists learn from this poet and creative thinker? Certainly not commandments nor doctrine. Yet, in this fractured and self-glorifying age, we might learn that there is a kinship. We can be creative and different, yet still affirm. Emerson’s take on the artist’s role within nature might be seen as similar to a jazz musician. If you are jamming, you have to listen to what’s going on before you toot your own horn. So, we ?listen.? And then shout out.

©2004 Robert Stanley