The world is full of questions. More questions than answers is the way it will always be for anyone who treads this lonely planet. There is much we simply can’t know within the bounds of a single lifetime, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Research studies have shown that small children ask around 300 questions a day. As we grow, we begin to ask fewer questions, but this is not because we amass a body of definitive knowledge. Rather, we perhaps grow jaded or believe we know enough. There is an entire world, a universe out there and we are the merest, infinitesimal speck among an unspeakably vast sea of mysteries we can’t begin to imagine.
What does this have to do with being an artist? Well, everything.
Artists are in a unique position. In days gone by, and in some cultures still today, certain people were considered wise. Whether these were shamans or mystics, witch doctors, oracles, the names change but the idea remains the same. These are the ones imbued with a special knowledge. The ability to interpret the world in a way that others can’t. Artists are indeed an answer to this ancient human desire.
Every culture has a need to understand the world. Since the beginning of humanity, we have used art to interpret everything around us. Our ancient ancestors left remnants on cave walls that tell us we have been seekers from the beginning. We have turned to art to help us understand and explain.
Art speaks to every aspect of life and society. From the vast expanse of space to the littlest detail, there is nothing off limits for an artist. It is this open-endedness that gives an artist so much power. There is no rule book, no definition that tells us exactly what is and is not to be examined. Artists are able to explore the biggest questions or find beauty in the mundane.
Artist Dornith Doherty has spent much of her career photographing specimens at the Svalbard seed vault. There, scientists have amassed a collection of the world’s seeds to safeguard in the event of global catastrophe. Doherty’s work is a way of exploring our relationship with the fragility of our own existence. In the wake of news last week that the Svalbard vault was jeopardized by flood waters from rising sea levels, this tenuousness is even more pronounced. By examining something very small and unremarkable such as a seed, Dornith Doherty focuses a lens on the very question of human existence.
In this way, artists can be very much like shamans and mystics. The ability to see something from a perspective many would miss entirely offers the opportunity to share a highly specialized knowledge with the world. Art opens portals through which larger vistas can be viewed. By using something familiar, an artist can ease viewers toward stepping beyond their comfort zones.
We live in a world where beauty is not always evident. There is violence in this place, unspeakable cruelty, urban sprawl, and mass destruction of the natural environment. Human life itself is fragile, we age and become ill, sometimes we are taken before our time. To be alive is to struggle with these things and ask ourselves why. To wonder whether there is meaning in any of it or if we are just pawns in a sweeping, random landscape.
Artists look these questions in the eye. They do not back away in fear. They walk right up to the beast and engage. An artist paints terminal illness, sculpts the destruction of the planet. Artists photograph history and dance the afterlife. They buildforests within the walls of a small space on a city block or invite the vacuum of outer space into an earthbound gallery.
Just as the mystics have done, artists lead society toward the edge and hold their hands as they leap. Artists try to tell the future and help us to understand the past. They hold he presentup to the light so that we can see what’s between the cracks.
Embrace this ability to be the one to whom a weary and questioning world turns when we seek bottomless perspective. Open your mind and your heart and allow all those who are too afraid to look to see with your eyes instead. Wrap the truth in art and put it on display. The true seekers will find what you have hidden within.
Our world is increasingly disjointed. While we are in some ways more connected than ever, we are further and further apart. Rarely do we stand on our own two feet staring into the abyss. We gloss the truth with distractions and interact virtually rather than eye to eye. Now, perhaps more than ever, artists are indispensable. Artists are the few brave enough to allow the gods to speak through them. To take the whole world in and parcel it out for the masses to consume. Artists offer answers, but also provoke further questions.