Art and Its Power to Transform

The artist Wassily Kandinsky writes in Concerning the Spiritual In Art that “the artist must search deeply into his own soul, develop and tend it, so that his art has something to clothe, and does not remain a glove without a hand…The artist must have something to say, for mastery over form is not his goal but rather the adapting of form to its inner meaning.”

What we have to say with our art runs the same gamut of possibilities as what we have to say in our conversations. Our art may reflect the idle chatter of a cocktail party or the revealing insights of an intimate conversation. We may create art for art’s sake or we may create with a deeper sense of purpose, to see what evolves when one’s artistic impulse is taken to a level below the surface. Either way, we are creating, but one may take us places the other does not.

To give our art something to clothe, we must know from the outset what is its purpose. Not to know what the final piece will look like, but to know at the beginning what it means to convey—to have tasted it already in our throats, heard its roar, felt the pounding beat of it.

Muriel Rukeyser, in The Life Of Poetry, writes that “a work of art is one through which the consciousness of the artist is able to give its emotions to anyone who is prepared to receive them.” As one deliberates over the choice of colors in a painting or chords in a musical composition, one is reckoning with the emotions that each evokes, attempting to get the outer work as true to the inner feeling as possible. There is a reason an artist chooses cerulean blue over the more vibrant ultramarine or the passionate vermilion over the more stately alizarin crimson. There is a reason why Dixieland jazz is written in major keys and why Moonlight Sonata is minor. There are moods, nuances, subtleties to convey that underline whatever might be called the content of the work and these fine distinctions are what every creative person deals with constantly in the development of her or his work.

In her book,What Is Found There, poet Adrienne Rich gives voice to several artists addressing the questions of form, content, and purpose in their work. Sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett writes, “I learned that my sculpture and my prints had to be based on the needs of people. These needs determine what I do. Some artists say they express themselves: they just reflect their environment. We all live in a given moment in history and what we do reflects what level we are on at that moment. You must, as an artist consciously determine where your own level is.”

By “level,” Catlett means two things: first, the socio-historical roots of our creativity—what traditions do we come from, what social privileges do we enjoy, and how does our social standing effect our artmaking process—and our level of responsiveness or responsibility to the world around us. To Rich, it means that the artist is “free to become artistically more complex, serious, and integrated when most aware of the great questions of her, of his, own time.”

She includes comments by poet and painter Michele Gibbs who addresses the question of Catlett’s “levels”:

Choosing to be an artist (ie, a distiller and creator rather than a imitator, copyist, critic, or technician, is itself, a level. Then arise questions of:

1) what are you calling attention to?

2) what energy/action does your creation feed?

3) what reach will your creations (voice/images) have; and where are you directing their force?

4) what counts for connection?

Rich adds that the issue of connection here “implies the centrality of communality in the artistic process,” where the authenticity of one’s vision is verified by the “parallel/ complementary creation of others.” What I put out there in the world, once received by you, has some impact on what you, in turn, put out there in the world.

We may or may not remember this as we begin our work, but artists who create with this in mind have a great deal to contribute to the well-being of the human family. No matter what the specific substance of our work, if we approach it with an intention of usefulness beyond self-expression, then we breathe into it an air of universality, a chance that it will matter to more than ourselves that the piece was shaped, the spirit released.

Our task as artists is not to respond to the clamor and demand of contemporary public passions, producing earth tones one year, mauves the next. It is not to see what is selling and add to the heap, but to feel for what is missing and bring something to the emptiness. Our challenge is not to look across the landscape of the human expe-rience, but to look into it with our deepest compassion and vision, to burrow down into it until we feel the longings of the lost and hear the hungry heartfelt questions of our young.

Art that arises from this place does more than mirror the signs of our times. It is more than an echo of what is already sounding. Art that blends an inner knowing with an outer experience is fertile and carries with it a prophetic strength: the ability to be not merely a child of the present but a mother of the future. It can carry us forward, teach us, move us to action, change the direction of thought and feeling. This art, whose roots grow deep in the common ground, is a sustaining art, a renewing art, an art which carries the promise of a new day dawning.

By Jan I. Phillips

Jan Phillips is an award-winning writer, speaker, and multi-media artist. She is the author of The Art of Original Thinking-The Making of a Thought Leader, Divining the Body, God Is at Eye Level – Photography as a Healing Art, Marry Your Muse, Making Peace and A Waist is a Terrible Thing to Mind. She has taught in over 23 countries and conducts workshops nationally in creativity, consciousness, and spirituality. You may subscribe to her free monthly Museletter at

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