Mirrors and Windows

Finding Wholeness through Art


Mark Rothko, center panel for tryptich, Rothko Chapel, Houston 1966

Truth is found in paradox. Nature seeks balance. Where there is a push, there is a pull. We cannot come to a mature point of view without entertaining the opposing side; we cannot stand for something without standing against something else. As we know from many conflicting positions, truth often lies in the middle, partaking of both sides and fully embracing neither. Our perceptions and thoughts are all too often duality-based, favoring one thing over another rather than seeking to transcend the duality itself.

Most great art contains paradox, hints of opposition that bring complexity and depth. A symphony needs the lower tones of bass and drums and the finer, higher frequency sounds from the flute and the violin. One instrument plays off another, expressing richness and harmonic integration of opposites. Many great photographs are beautiful renditions of horrifying subject matter. Witness war images and photographs that document the ravaged natural environment. And view truly great paintings, where earth-bound materials (paints and canvas) can sing the hymns of the sublime. Art can reflect a generative energy that moves beyond the ordinary – to the highly creative. We know that contact with the creative force is something we need, and on a deep level, long for — something more than ordinary life can offer.

In viewing works of art such as the canvases of Mark Rothko and Ad Reindhardt, recent photographs by Sally Mann and Richard Misrach, and poetry by Rilke or Rumi, we sense a living, radiant presence, mixed with the painful recognition of our mortality and an honest acknowledgment of the dominance of our being by ego-based, everyday concerns. These works contain, yet transcend, paradox. Indeed, I feel that in many of the greatest works we find a search for wholeness of spirit, for redemption, and for eternal values expressed through the transitory moments and ephemeral circumstances of our lives.

Robert Adams, photographer and eloquent spokesperson for the integrity and ethical responsibility of the artist, writes: photography ought to start with and remain faithful to the appearance of the world, and in so doing record contradictions. The greatest pictures would then—I still believe this—find wholeness in the torn world.

As defined by hundreds of years of practice— I think this history is vitally important—art is a discovery of harmony, a vision of disparities reconciled, of shape beneath confusion. Art does not deny that evil is real, but it places evil in a context that implies an affirmation; the structure of the picture, which is a metaphor for the structure of Creation, suggests that evil is not final.           

… Art does not in fact prove anything. What it does do is record one of those brief times, such as we have and then each forget, when we are allowed to understand that the Creation is whole.]


© Sally Mann

Does art have the capacity to transcend duality-based thought? And if so, how might we approach art from this standpoint?

One of the first decisions that an artist must make is identifying the content of one’s work. While this often shifts, changes, and evolves over a lifetime, we strive to connect with our present passions, discover where our energies lie, and find meaningful content that suits our deepest inclinations. Are we interested in expressing ourselves and projecting the nature of our experiences into the world through our works? Or do we wish to place our talents and capabilities in the service of a social, environmental, or spiritual message? Or—as in much contemporary art—do we seek a balance, expressing aspects of life through the lens of our ideas, attitudes, experiences, and feelings? One of the two modalities is often emphasized: artists either work in an autobiographical fashion or strive to convey elements of the world that deserve their attention and reflect their passions or commitments. John Szarkowski, former Director of the Photography Department at MOMA, has incisively written on the two polarities of artistic expression, naming them mirrors and windows.

While this distinction is useful toward understanding the nature of contemporary art, it is ultimately limiting, confining the artist to extremes. The complexity of art will not allow us to define such neat, discrete categories. The fact is that all art is autobiographical in that it offers a highly personal passageway into the world, and some art is about art itself. For a good number of artists coming of age after the 1960’s, the medium has become the message. That is to say, the language of artistic representation is highly deserving of our attention. Many artists have broken new ground predominantly through pushing the limits of, and extending the syntax of their medium. Cubism, abstraction, free verse and jazz are good examples of this way of working. Critical theory has extended the reach of art into the social sciences. Art can also be a reflection of the visionary consciousness, expressing energies and vibrations, unrelated to direct subject matter but deeply related to life itself.

We need to ask ourselves: Why do we engage in art? There are many answers to this fundamental question and all ways of working are equally valid. The inner aim of the artist precedes and drives the precise nature of one’s type of expression. If we embrace the idea that one of the purposes of human life is growth and evolution, then artists themselves are unfinished works that strive toward completion. We need to find our own unique path of development. While I fully acknowledge the plurality of art, nevertheless the distinct polarities of empathy and projection provide a highly useful matrix to view the inner workings of the artist. The question is merely: what way of working best suits our temperament and predilections?

Beginning our journey in art through one or the other polarity, either through self-expression or through observations of the world itself, we can eventually learn to view art as both mirrors and windows. Can we attend to our own evolution while genuinely serving others and assisting the world itself? These are not mutually exclusive; they complement and deeply serve each other. In the self-expressive mode, we use our interaction with world as a means of understanding and reflecting who we are. We project our experiences and aspirations into the characters of our novels, the subjects of our paintings, or the shapes and forms of our three dimensional works. In creating art that provides commentary on social, environmental, or spiritual conditions, we use ourselves—our sensibilities—as a means of understanding the world itself. What we express is through our unique lenses, but our observations are about a reality that transcends ourselves. While the two currents of energy are present in most works, one or the other is often emphasized based on the expressive intent of the artist. With expression of self and our unique conditions, we use projection as the primary means of our artistic expression. In the observational or documentary mode, we use empathy.

“To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.” There is a time for communion and a time for autonomy. Many distinctions exist around these two polarities: permeability and agency, assertion and reception, masculine and feminine. Human perception proceeds from these two modes of experience, partaking deeply of both. Photographer Minor White writes of the difference between seeing things for what they are (empathy) and seeing things for what else they are (projection). When a student asked about the difference, he responded: “When you see things for what they are, you have to go out of yourself, out of your way, to understand the object, its fact and essence. When you see things for what else they are, the object goes out of its way to understand you.”

The genre—conceptual, autobiographic, documentary—is merely how we begin. Great art transcends categories. We have advantage of multiple points of view in the arts today: modernist, post-modern, experimental, etc. Can we take from each what is needed for our own purposes and find our own highly unique, individual expression? Can we integrate opposing tendencies, find the deep paradox contained life itself, and approach the elegance and simplicity of true inner feeling? Can we sing while we think?

Peter Brook writes in The Secret Dimension: “Certain frequencies of vibrations—colors, shapes, geometric figures, and above all proportions—evoke corresponding frequencies in us, each of which has a specific quality or flavor. … And on a more intuitive level the painter and the sculptor are tirelessly correcting and refining their work so that its coarse outer crust can give way to the true inner feeling. A poet sifts within his thought pattern, giving attention to subtle intimations of sound and rhythm which are somewhere far behind the tumble of words with which his mind is filled. In this way, he creates a phrase that carries with it a new force, and the reader, in turn, can perceive his own feelings being intensified as their energy is transformed by the impressions he receives from the poem. In each case the difference is one of quality and is the result not of accident but of a unique process.”