oil on canvas © Antonio Dias

Dwelling and Conviviality in Art

Ivan Illich‘s work turns on two related concepts. One is of our need to dwell, to inhabit a home, to have a place. The other is our need for conviviality. We cannot exist in isolation. We are vulnerable and part of everything as everything is part of us.

I’ve come to relate these two principals to a developing attitude towards sincerity and seriousness. I’ve come to learn that a supporting theme of all of my work, in painting, fiction, essays, poetry, and even within the Craft of the Boat; revolves around a drive to connect with and revitalize the place of sincerity and seriousness within our views of life.

This is an overwhelming task! I recognize that, but I also recognize that just about anything worth doing today shares a deeply fraught, problematic nature with such a quest! Our situation would not be what it is if what we confronted was somehow easy!

There are, of course, the benefits of steering clear of futility! So much of what drags us down is the clarity upwelling from within our very organisms that so much of what is “asked” of us, by our social roles and the institutional frameworks bounding us within a hegemonic culture of death, is futile. Once we are able to work through the mourning for the world, and ourselves, this requires of us we are met with what I’ve been calling a joyful disillusionment. The energy this releases from the forces of repression and denial in which they have been channeled is tremendous. This energy pulls us along toward that which is merely overwhelmingly difficult!

To clarify what is meant by sincerity and seriousness:

I’ve had a series of conversations recently that have kept coming back to these two points. My Qi Gong practice has also been gently nudging me into a habit of dwelling within a space of sincerity that had almost been lost to me due to the corrupting forces surrounding us and the way they tend to push us into forms of disengagement like ironic detachment or cynical defeat. I have felt the tension between my organism‘s need for sincerity – as we can see it, if we give it a chance. We cannot dwell anywhere without giving our vulnerability its due and accepting the fullness, the completeness of our need to be connected, to be integrated into all – and the cultural friction constantly pushing us to give it up.

One thing I’ve only recently been able to recognize is that what I had long taken as a series of surrenders and defeats have, in fact, been examples of letting go of the barriers to my acceptance of sincerity and all that sincerity brings. Let’s not forget that giving up and letting go are very different things!

Seriousness is related to sincerity. As with sincerity, it is commonly hidden behind toxic simulacra and straw-men arguments that work to hide its true nature from us and keep us at arm’s length from its embrace. Seriousness is not any form of masked aggression hiding behind piety so as to justify violence done either to the self or the world. It is not an enemy of joy, but its precursor. It is a characteristic I’ve long admired in other creatures – and not just eagles and lions, but howler monkeys, and even kittens and puppies in the silliest of situations. I’ve also found glimpses carved in light and shadows upon old daguerreotypes of indigenous peoples, or reading transcriptions of their words. A connection between the seriousness I’ve found in animals and these not-civilized people has led me to insights concerning how to approach life and how to put one’s responsibilities in order.

How does Art bring us to dwell and how does it manifest conviviality?

A painting is not made it is arrived at. This is a direct act of dwelling within a place that occurs within the privileged space of the canvas’ surface. To paint, if we approach the work with any honesty at all, is a constant lesson in the futility of intentions. The complexities of perception and action and the way they work themselves out physically upon a surface and within a mental field in a give and take, iterative and additive, but ultimately transcendent alchemical process can fool us into thinking what we wish to find is there for a while, but when we see it actually occurring we cannot mistake the real thing for anything else – so long as we are open…. This complexity engages us on every level if we allow it to. The nagging concerns that first led me to doubt modernism came from its reductivist strategies employed to channel and control – or simply eliminate by fiat – aspects that seemed too unruly.

Engaging with a painting, everything from sitting quietly in front of a canvas at whatever stage of its development; to the moment of lifting a brush; to reaching for a color; to envisioning a shape, a form, a curve, a line, a gesture; to glimpsing a scrap of light, or a form resolving itself as unmistakably “there” from out of the tentative marks surrounding it; to finally having the painting speak with a full and confident voice, marking the arrival of a Being, as real as any other and ready to join into conversation with all the rest; these are the elements that make up Art, and also are the elements that make up the way we find and carve meaning for ourselves in life. These are the same exercises that strengthen the muscles we require to navigate the complexities of perception and action in anything we might attempt. Without some working knowledge of how this unfolds we are apt to consider such a difficult task impossible and be that much more anxious to reach for solutions in techniques and to hide from life’s promise behind the myths of control.

A painting does not come fully to life until there are at least two people in the room with it. This must be experienced to be acknowledged. It is strongest, not in a museum surrounded by sanctified art – though it can certainly happen there, and does, once we are receptive and aware of its potential, but in front of a new work, especially when the artist herself may not be quite certain of what is there yet. Something happens to the painting when that second person stands in front of it. Even without any verbal or even “subliminal” communication between the two parties, the artist will see the work transformed. What then happens between the three; the painting, the artist, and the receptive visitor; is a dialogue. This dialogue is not predominately verbal, not even visual, it is a direct connection between three organisms, two human and one made up of marks in pigment upon a substrate. The communication is fluid and passes in every direction.

This is not just a communion between Art lovers. It is an experience of communion between creatures; dumb and sentient, mineral, vegetal, and animal. It brings us to a direct experiencing of the power of life within everything as it courses between and among these three entities and spirals out to encompass the entire world.

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5 thoughts on “Dwelling and Conviviality in Art

  1. Pingback: Dwelling and Conviviality in Art, a cross-post from Light on Canvas « Horizons of Significance

  2. Pingback: Integrity, and the Shape of Competence « Boats for difficult times

  3. Tony, this post and the next ring for me with a resonant Yes. I hadn’t got round to verbalising this for myself yet, but what you say about how intent interferes with what the painting wants to be is exactly my experience now. One has to be ripe for this insight; when one recognises wanting to ‘get it right’ or even beginning with an idea of the desired result isn’t the point of painting. (didn’t Picasso say something referring to painting, like Why take the journey if you know the destination?) .

    I have been doing Tai Chi and Qi Qong for 15 years. I am sure some of our shared sensibilities stem from involvement with these disciplines.
    I’d like to reblog one of these posts, but don’t know how to do that, so will get in touch with you about that later. Sarah

    • Thank you Sarah,

      A value intrinsic to painting is this ability to confront the morass of intention and its projections clouding our view. The honesty of paint, its capacity to show us what is there – and hold that eternally, outside of time – so that we can come to grips with the gap between what is there and what we thought we were doing.

      Or, another way of looking at the same thing, of finding what is there, when we thought we were doing something else. Echoes of John Lennon….

      WordPress does make it easy to reblog. Just follow their prompts if you wish.

      Tony

      • Thanks Tony. I like the phrase, ‘the honesty of paint’ very much.

        The paint on the easel up in the studio at the moment is a bit too honest! I wrote this as an aside, but it brings up a point. I am dissatisfied with the present stage of a painting I’m working on. My intent needs to be superimposed on the process to coincide with my vision of what it could be. There is an unresolved area that bothers me. Sometimes that is what painting is, moving from unresolved area to unresolved area. In an interview when asked how she knows a painting is done, Joni Mitchell says, ‘When there isn’t anything wrong with it anymore’.
        Sarah

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