Imagination: The Key That Unlocks Art's `Secret Language'

ART can be the source of tremendous political tension. The much publicized antagonism between artist Pablo Picasso and Spanish dictator Francisco Franco vividly enforces this potential of art. Franco had good reason to fear Picasso more than the rebels who opposed him. The massive painting by Picasso called ``Guernica'' was a powerful incrimination of Franco's bombing of the Spanish village of Guernica in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. The power of the painting was not militaristic but artistic; its force arose from the imagination and not from weaponry. An enemy can be destroyed. Picasso's painting, however, possesses an immortal voice. Its indictment draws immense power from the imagery of nightmares. Once seen, no one can easily forget ``Guernica.''

Although the famous standoff between Franco and Picasso is an obvious example of the political impact of art, the power of ``Guernica'' is not to be found in its vivid depiction of brutality. The painting is not propaganda. Its visual language is not the icons of protest posters and political cartoons.

The power of ``Guernica'' is found in the way the artist changed political reality into a painterly experience that is more terrifying than reality itself. Picasso's political outrage was entirely transformed by an imaginative process which made the creation of the painting possible. That same imaginative process, however, is also essential in viewers, if they are to respond to the painting's impact. In other words, the painting alone cannot illicit response. Its political force is found in the complex interaction between artist and audience. That interaction is built upon the imagination; that which was the source of vision for the creator must also become the source of comprehension for the audience. It is this kind of comprehension that gives ``art'' its communal significance among tribal peoples, and which also provides great religious painting and music with immense impact upon the faithful.

Today, when we think about expression and comprehension, we tend to focus upon the fact that many young Americans are illiterate. There are worse problems, however, than illiteracy. While attending a number of writing institutes around the country, I have learned from specialists (who are concerned with the techniques teachers use to teach children to read and write) that their problem is not just the loss of the mechanical ability to read. What concerns many educators is a dissipation among young Americans of the capacity for active imagination that allows people to comprehend what they read. The result is cultural illiteracy - a mentality not only incapable of comprehending the meaning of a book but also incapable of responding with imagination to painting, dance, architecture, theater, or any other cultural experience.

Such psychological alienation from one's own culture is politically devastating. It isolates us, not only in terms of what we understand about ourselves and our world, but also in terms of how well we communicate with one another. An ``emotionally illiterate'' person can be highly educated and professionally skilled. Yet such a person is disenfranchised from all but the superficial aspects of society. Lost to such people is not just the capacity to grasp the motives and motifs of their own emotional lives, but they also become incapable of the acts of imagination that allow them to make creative judgments and decisions.

Imagination is a political force because without it we cannot participate in our society, except as media autotypes, for whom opinion becomes a matter of public consensus; for whom information becomes gossip, and feeling becomes emotional artifice.

The eternal outcry of Picasso's ``Guernica'' is lost on people who are artistically and emotionally illiterate, because the results of the artist's imagination cannot exist without the support of the audience. ``The secret of the world,'' wrote Emerson, ``is the tie between person and event.'' That bond is built upon the immersion of all the persons of a society in its culture. We are apparently entering an era in which young people are alienated from the artistic forms and the emotional languages which make culture possible.

In most societies, philosophy, faith, and art are inseparable. Since the Renaissance that essential symbiosis has gradually eroded in Western civilization. By the mid-18th century, the arts had gradually slipped into social oblivion, resulting in a tragic and curious situation. We are the only society in history in which artists and their efforts are almost entirely alien to the audience.

Tribal people unanimously grasp their arts as an implicit element of their community mentality. But in the West, when art ceased to be the prime ``illustrator of Christian faith,'' it became a tool of the aristocracy, designating social position and ``refinement.''

Aristocrats became so refined that they failed to be civilized. And with the decline of the aristocratic art-amateur and the rise of the merchant class, both folk art and ``high'' art were abandoned even as social functions, and became the concern of a narrow artistic elite.

One now had to be an educated specialist to understand art. The imaginal ability to comprehend anything but the simplest social reality dissipated. The primordial and mysterious relationship of art and faith was replaced by the mystification of the artist as the practitioner of ``a secret language'' inaccessible to all but the few.

This decline of cultural comprehension - the terrible rift between art and people - became something of a political dilemma for social reformers who dreamed of a populist culture for the masses. But generations of ``art appreciation'' failed to create a universal and truly ``democratic'' joy in art.

Stalin demanded that artists create works that people would easily understand. Politicizing art ironically deprived art of its political power. Art suffered great losses, and the people made few gains. British playwright Tom Stoppard pointed to the irony in such a situation when he wrote, ``The further left you go politically, the more bourgeois they like their art.''

Since the ancient days when the first ``artists'' painted the caves at Altamira with marvelous imagery filled with power, the arts have lost much of their power and all of their commonality.

Sculptor David Barr puts it this way: ``When I look at the ancient world - and I'm talking about places like Stonehenge - what I'm seeing is the works of people who believed that the earth is sacred. In our culture, `knowing' - for all its practical good - has alienated us from feeling. So we have to build sanctified structures, like churches. And we believe that God lives in those churches, but doesn't live in the rest of the world. For people like me, who are uncomfortable in the cathedral, we begin to suspect that sacredness doesn't exist anywhere. And so, for many artists the only remaining place of mystery is inside one's self. Admittedly, this egocentric point of view has become the source of a lot of creative arrogance. And much of nonsensical and self-indulgent `art' that such egotism has produced has become the justification for many people to reject art entirely.''

As far as David Barr is concerned, once art is reintegrated into society, there will be no need to bring the people to art or to bring art to the people. But to get art back into the world, we have to regain that imaginative capacity which makes us an intrinsic part of our culture.

To recover the ability to read a painting or a sonata, a play, a dance, or novel is an immensely difficult task. We are so remote from the capacity to experience (and to be touched by) art that we have devoted ourselves to the hopeless effort of understanding it.

When we discover that we cannot enjoy art simply by understanding it, we accuse it of falsity and reject it entirely, while, at the same time, we insist that the things we can understand are real art. ``I don't know much about art, but I know what I like.'' The problem with the popular success of art of dubious merit is that it reinforces and justifies our artistic illiteracy. It also institutionalizes the neglect of excellent art.

Despite its reputation as impractical activity, art is nonetheless an implicit element of human nature. Without art we are alone. For art is that Emersonian ``secret of the world that is the tie between person and event.'' And between person and person. There is nothing alien or elitist about art unless we feel left out of it. In that case, we should probably reexamine ourselves. Artists cannot create art for ``the people'' until people renew their capability for artistic experience. It takes as much talent to respond to art as it does to create it.

The failure of communication between artists and people is caused by an artistic illiteracy which makes it impossible to ``read'' a significant painting or to ``experience'' a profound piece of music or a meaningful novel. As much as we believe in the power of data, it is an illiteracy that information cannot alleviate.

The attainment of a capacity for aesthetic response is infinitely more subtle than learning the mechanics of reading and writing a language. Despite such difficulties, until we discover methods to awaken a capacity for feeling in all our communities, we will continue to be in danger of losing ourselves, even if we win the entire world. Scientific knowledge is essential to the betterment of our world, but the ``ecology of the human imagination'' may turn out to be a far more urgent issue of our time.

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