Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bring it Back

In 1983 at a talk called Explorations delivered at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, Joseph Campbell revisited one of the central themes of his lifework. He claimed that the artist plays an essential role in the formation and maintenance of the psycho-spiritual health of the human race, and that artists far from being mere entertainers or decorators have a sacred duty to brave the depths of the unconscious and bring back treasures that inspire us all to realize the depth and beauty of our own lives. In other words, for Campbell, art is as important as the air we breathe. But unlike air, art does not fall out of the sky ready-made. We have to make it.

How does the artist minister to the psycho-spiritual health of humankind? By setting before us the archetypal symbols of our own awakening and drawing us into ever-deeper forms of self-knowledge.

It begins with a long apprenticeship. Every chance encounter, every tug of the heart, every starry sky, every word, sound and moment forms a sea in which the fledgling artist swims. The artist’s greatest skill is discernment – what to leave in and what to leave out. From nothing less than the entire sphere of human experience the artist begins to mold her vision of beauty. But she must first learn the techniques of her craft. She must find a teacher.

After mastering the vocabulary of her medium she reaches the first crisis. As her own unique voice begins to emerge the teacher becomes obsolete. She must break away. Art is so much more than mimicry. It is time to move on.

With her apprenticeship behind her and a growing body of high quality work taking shape, the young artist stands at a threshold. No matter her medium – paint, sculpture, dance, photography, film, poetry, prose or music – she must brave the hero’s journey into the underworld of the unconscious and face the dangers of madness, loneliness and poverty in order to reach the transcendent goal: nothing less than the realization of unity, integration and the resultant healing of the world.

According to Campbell, there are three main realization symbols: the heiros gamos, the atonement with the father and apotheosis. The heiros gamos or sacred marriage is the profound healing and integration of the animus and anima, the male and female energy found within each of us. This often takes the form of boy meets girl. There’s a reason there are so many love songs. On the surface they’re about finding someone to love. Deeper down, they’re about healing the rift between the conflicting energies of our own souls. The second realization symbol, the atonement with the father, is the satiation of the universal longing for the source. As Luke Skywalker goes searching for his father, we all want to know where we came from as a means of finally answering the primal question, what am I? If we knew what made us, we would know our own essence. This is why we love songs about the road and songs about home. It turns out take me home country roads isn’t really about West Virginia after all. And finally, apotheosis means realizing the divine nature of our own essence, as Buddha experienced under the bodhi tree when all his illusory mental constructs and so-called understandings faded away in the bright light of the realization that he was one with the universal consciousness from which we and all things come. All of us, whether we realize it yet or not, want what Buddha has, what Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven, where we realize that in the depths of our own being we are one with the Father. Great art can give us these three gifts, sometimes all in one overwhelming moment.

It is the challenge of every authentic artist to bring these gifts out of the depths of their own understanding and re-present them to us in new and relevant forms. “The point is that what you have to bring,” said Campbell, “is something that the world lacks – that is why you went to get it. The daylight world doesn’t even know that it needs this gift you are bringing.” So this isn’t going to be easy. In fact, at this stage of the journey, the artist faces a perilous decision. As she struggles to create works of art should she stay true to her own private invention and vision, or should she speak in the pedestrian language of mass culture? Should she be an artiste or a hack?

Should she stand in the corner of an art gallery in Manhattan and caterwaul like Yoko Ono or should she go to Nashville and churn out the next formulaic hit? Should she paint what her soul sees or should she paint Thomas Kinkade fairy houses? If she’s true to herself she runs the risk that no one will care. Art for an audience of one (the artist) is a lonely life. At this point she may flee to a cabin in the woods to paint the masterpieces nobody wants in the hopes that some future generation will lionize her as they did Van Gogh. Or she may utilize her extensive skill to give the people what they want, thinking to herself, when I make enough money painting this commercial slop, then I’ll paint what I want. But that day never comes.

The third and most courageous alternative is to find a way to stay true to your depth vision and develop a vocabulary that hooks the public without pandering. Campbell calls this the pedagogical path. Here, you help your public connect with their deepest needs and initiate them into a process of realization by bringing your silent answers into alignment with their unspoken questions – the artist as teacher.

In the language of the hero’s journey, the hero must go into the underworld to retrieve the boon or the prize. In the first scenario, the artist who refuses to communicate and hides in the woods is guilty of what Campbell calls “the refusal of the return”. It’s a common pitfall, to dismissively condemn the untrained masses and blame them for your failure. In the second scenario, the artist returns but doesn’t deliver anything; they simply give the public more of what they already have which doesn’t help them at all. In the third scenario the hero returns with the boon and finds a way to deliver it to the masses in correct proportion to their ability to receive. This, says Campbell, requires great sensitivity and compassion on the part of the artist. Having the patience and skill to draw your audience in is a loving, ego-less act. It’s so much easier to hold your audience in contempt, take your toys and go home. Or become a soulless panderer. But the path with heart, the sacred opportunity, is to bring the treasure right into the marketplace and integrate us all in the process. If you are an artist, do you have the patience, loving-kindness and courage to do this? When it comes to transcendent wisdom, do you have the guts to go get it and the compassion to give it away? There is so much need for healing. Develop a voice, believe that there is something worth singing about and be that voice. Trust that you are the one we all need. Then without ego, grounded in the profound depth of humility, find the treasure and bring it back.