PAINTING FOR THE ANGELS
MAY 11, 2018
The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it. -- Thomas Merton This little paint box was used by an Egyptian artist 3,300 years ago: The artist had seven colors: blue, white, ochre, hematite (dark red), hematite mixed with calcium carbonate (lighter red), and two grades of charcoal black. According to the hieroglyphs on the label, these colors only came in CMYK. (RGB was apparently unavailable with this model.) I couldn't find the USB port for connecting with the Wacom Cintiq Pro (it must've broken off around 1,000 BCE). And heaven only knows what obsolete version of animation software this thing ran. The artist fashioned a little tray to hold water and a brush. The sliding lid is decorated with a genet (a small rodent-like mammal that lived in the papyrus thickets along the ancient Nile). The artist even painted the lid to look like papyrus. What could anyone accomplish with such a primitive tool? These crummy colors would embarrass any self-respecting kindergarten class today. According to the RISD Museum (where I found this paint box) "Painters used these same pigments to decorate statuary and the walls of temples and tombs." So here are a few samples: These artists lacked what we would consider the most fundamental tools necessary for making a decent picture-- for example, electric light for painting the walls of a dark, underground tomb-- yet they created works of astonishing beauty that still give us chills thousands of years later: How many works of art created today will evoke a similar response in 3,000 years? The first two lessons from the tiny paint box are obvious: 1.) Art does not "progress" the way other human enterprises do; an ancient drawing in a prehistoric cave may be more beautiful and sensitive than a work of art by today's most "advanced" artist. 2.) Fancy and expensive tools don't necessarily result in a better work of art; a drawing scratched on a prison wall with a bed spring may be artistically superior to the latest Pixar high tech multi-million dollar extravaganza. Everybody already understands those first two rules. This week I'd like to propose a third lesson: 3.) the power latent in a tiny paint box can be unleashed in part by the beliefs of the painter. In an age of faith, when true believers devote their talents to honoring their gods (or their pharaohs, or their one true love) that higher purpose sometimes imbues their art with larger and more important qualities. Today's artists who are motivated by the press reviews for their next gallery opening or their copyright contract or their royalty fees may produce brilliant, complex material. It may be dazzling in its presentation and clever (although often snarky) in its tone. But that work often seems thinner and more transitory than the work of artists who, working with the humblest tools, are motivated by fear and dread of their gods.or by the radiance of divine bliss.or by the soul flying from our body at the hour of our fate.