Painting as Prayer: Understanding Artistic Process As Mysticism

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The great contemporary British painter Frank Auerbach said: “Real artistic style is not donning a mantle or having a program; it’s how one behaves in a crisis.” This “crisis” of creative practice – which underpinned the output of artists as varied as Michelangelo, Delacroix and Philip Guston – has been subsumed beneath art market forces, the glossy fare of Art Forum and other magazines, and the stumbling and confused rantings of contemporary art critics.
However, the fact remains that a truly personal artistic vision must depart from the known and easy to understand symbols awash in the general culture; even in our wry, post-modern milieu, true art will only emerge from out of Auerbach’s crisis, into which an artist must plunge to achieve visionary worth.
Ultimately, the proper visual solution to the artistic crisis will always be the same: it will be unfathomable to the artist, a meaning that flows from the passionate, desperate, even hopeless visual quest. Look too closely for reason that a visual work is successful, and the visual power disintegrates, leaving a mediocre work of art as its residue.
This illustrated paper explores how a visionary artistic search must mimic the mystic’s quest, skittering along the razor edge between faith and the abyss (as represented by the canon of the contemporary art world aesthetic). Through an exploration of the paralyzing fear that stalks the artist at his or her easel, and how it is referential to the underpinning fear that often overcomes human reason in all fields, this paper posits that the artistic quest is ultimately a metaphor for the human quest – that of becoming truly and completely conscious. At our very best, contemporary artists can help point the way towards this higher sense of the human being, by devoting ourselves to visually foraging at the frontier between the known and the unknown.
This paper finishes by introducing a specific manner in which an artist can bypass the thin veneer of “rational” consciousness and the normative visual symbols that this vessel holds, and move into the region of the spirit, lying latent within each creative soul.

Keywords: Art, Practice, Mysticism, Drawing
Stream: Arts Theory and Criticism
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Painting as Prayer, Painting as Prayer

Tom Block

Silver Spring, MD, USA

An activist/artist myself, this theory has grown out of my own practice. I have presented my ideas underpinning prophetic activism at numerous onferences, symposia and universities over the past few years, including Perspectives on Creativity (Holy Family University, PA, 2008), Media, Spirituality and Social Change (University of Colorado, 2008), Globalization and Human Rights (Bethany College, WV, 2008), Rethinking Resistance 2007 (Emory University, Atlanta, GA), International Peace Research Association (University of Calgary, Canada, 2006), Peace and Justice Studies Association (Manhattan College, NY, 2006; Elizabeth College, PA, 2007), Southeast College Art Conference (Nashville, TN, 2006), Mid Atlantic Popular Culture Association (Philadelphia, PA, 2007) and the Committing Voices conference (Goddard College, Plainfield, VT, 2004). Additionally, I have spoken about prophetic activist art as part of the "Robert & Elizabeth Johnson Professorship in Leadership" lecture series (Franklin College, IN), and at other universities, including East Carolina University (NC), Antioch College (OH), Franklin and Marshall College (PA), American University (DC), George Washington University (DC), Michigan State University (MI), Ohio State University (OH), Hanover College (IN), Ohio University (OH), Manhattan College (NY), Washington Theological Union (DC) and others. I have exhibited my artwork at museums, galleries and non-profit spaces around the United States and Europe.

Ref: A09P0430