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Artistry and Obedience

August 30, 2010

You have to find what you must obey, artistically; and finding it is finding that which exists in relation to more than your will and purpose — finding the depth of alternative embodiment in the seen landscape, the depth of gratuitous capacity in the imagined character (when what you want to imagine will not come) and so on.  Imagination produces not a self-contained mental construct but a vision that escapes control, that brings with it its shadow and its margins, its absences and ellipses, a dimensional existence as we might call it.  The degree to which art is ‘obedient’ — not dependent on an artist’s decision or tastes — is manifest in the degree to which the product has dimension outside of its relation to the producer, the sense of alternative space around the image, of real time and contingency in narrative, of hinterland.

This quote comes from Rowan Williams’ recent book Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love. In the book, he sets out to do serious reflection on artistic labor and its relationship to human labor.  A constant theme he returns to, and one that he draws out from Jacques Maritain’s philosophy of art, is that things give more than they have. Artistry, argues Williams, is a ‘making other’ that submits to that which is made and recognizes a ‘generative excess’ that overflows the being of the other that is made.  Williams goes on to say that “the artist looks for the ‘necessity’ in the thing being made, but this ‘necessity’ can only be shown when the actual artistic form somehow lets you know that the necessity is not imposed by the hand of an artistic will but uncovered as underlying the real contingency of a world that has been truthfully imagined.”

This idea that the artist seeks to become obedient to the necessity of his creations is interesting.  Williams is careful to point out that this necessity does not come from the artist’s will, but is actually discovered in the gracious excess of reality.  I wonder how Williams’ account of artistic creativity matches up with our own reflections upon making.  Have you found artistic making to involve an obedience to something ‘other’ such as a character, form, composition, tradition, or community?  How do artists open their creative practices to relationships beyond themselves?  How can we allow our imaginations to produce a “vision that escapes control?”

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