Art and consciousness


The past two years have been a desultory mix of so many obligations that it has been nearly impossible to hew to a daily painting discipline. Typically, I’ve enjoyed two months of fairly uninterrupted work and then faced a month when I might have only a few days available for painting–earning some money as a writer, putting in time as a caregiver for my parents, working on our house, visiting my kids in California. As of this June, though, I’ve been able to paint every day and should be able to stick with this schedule into the foreseeable future, with only some short breaks here and there. It’s put me in a much better mood, in general, though that’s tempered by the fact that I’ve reached a point where I’m more critical of the work I’m doing, as I do it. I keep wrestling with a specter of what I recognize as a hyper-sensitive discouragement about results, when the results are actually perfectly fine because what I’m doing and seeing in the work is part of the evolution, the path. Ironically, I feel as if I’m at a threshold where my methods and skills are such that I can reliably do certain things now that weren’t possible before, so I have to fight an impatience that arises when I’m not surprised by what I’m doing. (I’m still struggling as I go, facing uncertainties, but it’s more within a broader range of confidence, so my success at this or that doesn’t impress me as much.) I need to be patient and do what I know how to do for a while, consolidate what I’ve learned about how to paint, in order to build a body of work over the next couple years–which means I have to fight the impatient urge to push past this stage into something a little bolder. More on that later.

Meanwhile, in an email alert from Open Culture, I learned that I can listen to hours of Joseph Campbell lectures for free now on Spotify. Quelle pleasant surprise. I immediately started listening to his lectures at Cooper Union in the late 60s, and after only a few minutes Campbell got right to the heart of the matter and confirmed that I will have some pleasant hours ahead of me:

One of the problems man has to face is reconciling himself to the problem of his own existence, and this is the first function of mythology is that reconciliation of consciousness with the mystery of being, not criticizing it. Shakespeare and his definition of art where he says, art (or the art of acting,) holds the mirror up to nature. It is a perfect definition I would say of the first function of mythology. When you hold a mirror up to your self, your consciousness becomes aware of its support, what it is that is supporting it. You may be shocked with what you see; or you may be pleased that you become aware of yourself, your consciousness becomes aware of that darkness, that Being which came into being out of darkness and which is its own support. The first function then of a mythology is the reconciliation of consciousness to the foundations of being and the realization of their mystery as something that consciousness is not going to be able to criticize, not even going to be able to elucidate, not even going to be able to name. It is something beyond naming, beyond all definitions, and when that is lost one loses the sense of awe, which Goethe calls the best thing in man. One loses the sense of gratitude for one’s privilege of having a center of consciousness aware of these things.

2 Responses to “Art and consciousness”

  1. Tom Fasano

    I like your comments about following a path and being patient. I’m a teacher and can paint in earnest during the summers, but impatience with how little time I have and how much I waste makes me feel like Sisyphus pushing his rock. I notice you have kids in California. My wife and I live close to Pasadena and regularly visit the Huntington Library, Norton Simon Museum, LACMA — some of the benefits of living in Southern California. Wishing you all the best with your painting.

  2. dave dorsey

    Hey Tom. I’ve been in the same position as a teacher for most of my life, earning most of my income by writing and painting only when I can. As I’ve gotten older, over the past decade basically, I’ve been able to shift more of my time into painting and have been able to start exhibiting on a regular basis. Other painters I know have been in the same position. It’s the economic reality of the game, basically, and I think it’s only going to become more prevalent with what’s happened to the art market, where the mid-level, the demand for work from emerging or lesser-known artists seems to have diminished in favor of higher-priced work. What’s happening to the economy as a whole is happening in the world of art: the active money is, more and more, isolated to the highest levels. A recent story in the Times about gallery closings reinforced this–I think the bulk of the money gets spent at fairs and auctions and the highest-profile galleries, making it harder for anyone but the most acclaimed artists to earn a living by making art. (I suppose this has always been the case, but it’s more pronounced now.) The problem is that most of us have to deal with this by adopting irregular work schedules for painting/art making, which erodes momentum and makes it harder to have new work available for shows and sales. It’s tough.