Art must always point toward a greater truth. Art is not itself the truth. There is an old Buddhist admonition: “Do not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.” Even more to the point is Isaiah 29:13-24: “Your perversity is as though the potter were taken to be the clay; As though what is made should say to the maker, “He made me not!” Or the vessel say to the potter, “He does not understand.”
Art that points toward a greater truth is literally in danger of not being seen in a culture that does not believe in a greater truth, but only in truth as it is asserted. The art of that culture will be self-referential: small, chaotic, and increasingly vulgar. At the end of this arrangement is not art but violence. The strongest arm or the biggest gun will compel your assent.
Self-referential art tells small truths, at best, and then only beneath the obscurity of larger lies. There is really only one large lie and it is that there is no such thing as truth.
When a musical note is sung or played, it quickly passes away. The sound is no longer heard, but it has an effect on the mind and heart of the one who hears. St. Augustine writes, “The sound of my voice brings the meaning of a word to you and then passes away. The word which the sound has brought to you is now in your heart, and yet it is still also in mine.”
You view a painting, but you do not have it forever with you. It leaves some effect on your mind or heart. It points to something larger than an artist, or group of artists, or particular artistic movement. You read a book and it has an effect on your mind and heart. It points to something larger than the writer or the cultural milieu the writer works in. Culture itself is dead when it becomes self-referential. Consider the Nazis of the 1930’s and 40’s; great lovers of the symphony and the opera, great thieves of fine art from all over Europe. But their love was for classical forms and not for the truth toward which those forms pointed. Their love was for self and it died with them.
As an artist you have the immense privilege of a gift in the first place. Do not worry about whether it is a modest gift or a grandiose gift. Strive to learn and understand the things that you are able to learn and understand and then strive to let the gift express itself through your hands. If you do that, the gift you have received will be expressed truly. If it is expressed truly, then it is pure gift received and given. Whether it is perceived by others as modest or grandiose is of no importance. To paraphrase St. Paul, what have you received that you were not given? And if it was given to you, why do you act as if you did not receive it?
Are you not thankful to receive gifts and pleased to give them? Be thankful and pleased with what you receive and give.
It is wonderful to stand before nature and contemplate it with the purpose of making a statement about it in paint. But even to say that is duplicitous. We are of nature- we are not separate from it, and we do not invent ourselves or what we observe. There is no possibility of “improving on nature.” We may speak of improving on nature in the sense of “as it were”; but really all we are talking about is composing a picture in our little two dimensional format to communicate the truth of nature. We do not invent that truth, we are witness to it. If we depart from that truth it will be evident, and no improvement. So, if you move a cloud shape in the scene you observe while making your painting to make a better composition, you are not improving on nature, you are composing a picture according to nature using the elements of nature at your disposal. You depart from the truth if you put that cloud shape in a spot where it could not occur in nature; for example, if you put the shape of a cloud that is nearby too close to a horizon which is far away, it will look like it ought to squash that horizon. It will serve you right, because it doesn’t belong there. Observe the truth and respect it.
If you do not think there is such a thing as truth, then why do you stand in front of nature to paint? The moment you stand in front of nature to paint, you claim to be a witness to the truth. So, be a witness.