In business school there is little ambiguity as to the mission, money … profits. In art school it’s a little different. The one I went to required focus, after a year of fundamentals, on one of several options: Advertising, Illustration, Industrial Design (all, you’ll note, with the same point as business school) or Fine Art. Within the Fine Arts, by year three, one selected a major: painting, sculpture or printmaking. Of course everyone knew that “fine art” was a commodity, but it was considered crass to dwell too much on that area. So what, if not money, was the point? Well, the word transcendental might have come up, if not that particular word then a synonym. Before we go further it should be pointed out that it has nothing to do with dental work. I don’t know how dental got in there.
We looked to figures like Van Gogh, wholly taken up by painting despite poverty, ridicule and scorn, little recognition beyond their circles of starving artists, a few patrons maybe. It’s not about money we said, and meant it. But what did we mean? I mean, what was it we were after if it wasn’t money? Beauty? Truth? Authenticity? Ok, but what do those words mean? They were bandied about in the art mags and theoretical writings and we thought we knew what they meant just by using them. But the question remains, what do they mean? Why was art-making special and beyond commerce?
Of course the artists we admired now have respect. People flock to the museums to see their work. There are adoring biographies, imitators, framed reproductions, astronomical auction prices … so there is definitely a material presence in the shadow of the great men (mostly) just as the great religious figures attracted a following that didn’t necessarily get the message. Yes, ego is everywhere, crap and corruption, but that message, again, what is it?
We identify things in the world, sub-sets say of the actually indivisible whole, i.e., atoms, photons, waterfalls, buildings, galaxies and death, or our ideas of that mystery. Even our own thoughts and emotions … and here we have an insight, that if we are aware of our thoughts and emotions, who or what is aware? There must be something beyond the thoughts/emotions that is aware of them and that something is awareness itself, what YOU (or I – we) actually boil down to. I venture that here is the message, that what, outside of ego, moves art makers is the tantalizing glimpse of awareness that pulls them away from commerce toward the world that can only be experienced, in its deepest aspects, through awareness, presence as the Buddhists would have it. Intuition was another word we used to try to get at this. Catherine Fox, in a review of this writer’s paintings, wrote, “For Ferguson, art-making is less a career than a yoga practice — a vehicle to get him to a state of consciousness.”
So why would we be interested in “consciousness” when there are material riches out there just waiting for us to get our hands on ’em. They promise us feelings of superiority, invulnerability, and pleasures of palette and flesh. Well, some see through these appeals to ego and others, like the Buddha himself it is said, achieve the seduction of “success” and find it hollow. Consider the billionaires who continue to obsessively amass wealth even when what they have would take multiple life times to spend.
The attraction of “consciousness” is that it gives us access, it is a portal to the joy and profundity of being. It is how we experience the incredibly beautiful and complex phenomenon of existence and our inexplicable interconnection, unity, with it … it is us, we are it … and this transitory, material world is a wave swelling up out of the sea, rolling the peppled shore and returning once again to the deep.