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Artistic Origins

Picasso, son oeuvre, et son public, from La Série 347. Christies, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child. ” Pablo Picasso

What do we suppose Picasso meant by the above quote? How, exactly, does one “paint like a child”? Likely, this isn’t a statement about technique, but perspective; an observation regarding the qualitative relationship between self and other that renders both “transparent to transcendence,” as Joseph Campbell would put it. The English art critic John Bergerobserved, “A drawing of a tree shows not a tree, but a tree being looked at.” Picasso is aware of this. He is searching for a way to encounter the image, fully formed, as it is. A way for the image not to be drawn, not represented, but to be fully present. To spring from the canvas alive and engaged in a dynamic, fluid, and transformative exchange with the self; a never-ending cosmic dance of co-creative, generative emergence. A relationship directly experienced before it is ever named and, tragically, one that begins to fade once we become “aware” of ourselves as finite beings, separate from that which is beheld.

A Coptic Christian monk in the order of St. Antony once observed that all spiritual practice is a quest to overcome the self. The world’s wisdom traditions teach that it is this disorienting knowledge of the private self which casts us, fractured and diminished, into the word of “either/or” that must be transcended. The Undifferentiated Self, on the other hand—the Self we were before learning from culture, family, trauma, and memory to trust the spaces between ourselves and the Other more than anything else—must somehow be recovered from the wreckage of the dis-enchanted adult. We do this primarily by unlearning, and then relearning, to see with eyes that are both innocent and wise. This is the task of all living mythology: to assist the adult in recovering a childlike wonder of the world without sacrificing their adult wisdom and regressing into childish versions of their broken, fearful selves. To recover the child, and integrate the adult, by re-enchanting the world.

In The Masks of God, Volume 1:Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell explores the winding tributaries of myth, ritual, and ceremony to discover their unique attributes and likely common origins in the vast mythic ocean of the collective unconscious. “The mystery of the universe and the wonder of the temple of the world are what speak to us through all myths and rites,” Campbell reminds us, “as well as the great effort of man to bring his individual life into concord with the whole.” (109)

But what is it about children that allows them to more easily “see” the world in the mythic frames Campbell articulates? In Primitive Mythology, Campbell follows Piaget in asserting that children are able to directly engage the other before the concretization of “I.” This, according to Campbell, is what affords them the fluidity and permeability of perception that Picasso desires. A way of encountering the world that amounts to what Campbell called “a level of immediate experience, antecedent to all thought, where there is neither hope nor fear, but only the rapture of a sheer–and mere–consciousness of being.” (109) Through the immersive, childlike wonder of direct experience of the world as it is, the consciousness of the universe is able to know itself, without the distortions of ego.

Mythology, according to Campbell, contains the many masks of God: masks which simultaneously reveal and conceal that which they represent. A pageant play of sacred images emerge from thousands of years of sensing, of beholding, of unlearning the doctrines of separateness– doctrines children have not yet fully learned. Masks, according to Campbell, begin as points of departure into the mythos of the culture and end up as points of arrival into the deepest parts of our psyches. Engaging myth allows us to step outside of time, as it were, and examine the moment for all of its artistic fullness. Mythology can assist us in the ongoing process of becoming– a process that looks both outward and inward, forward and backward. All in service of transformation. Of integration. Campbell claims,

A mythology is an organization of images conceived as a rendition of the sense of life, and this sense is to be apprehended in two ways, namely: 1) the way of thought, and 2) the way of experience. As thought mythology approaches—or is a prelude to—science; and as experience it is precisely art. Furthermore, the mythological image, the mythological formula, is rendered present, here and now, in the rite. So likewise are the motifs of the rite experienced not as references but as presences. They render visible the mythological age itself. (179, emphasis is mine.)

In other words, through each attempt to render the mysteries of life intelligible, we have collectively produced the great mythological narratives, rituals, ceremonies, and transformative algorithms that serve as the points of departure and arrival into the mystery of our emergent selves.  

The beauty of myth is that it can freeze a sacred moment in ways that makes it both timeless and utterly timely at once. Myth provides experiential, artistic avenues into, and out of, the paradox of being. To be alive is to be forever transforming into the other. To be captured, completely, in a moment in time is to succumb to death. To be final. To no longer be. This is the grotesque knowing that mythological awareness offers the mind. This is the stark arrival into the world of forms, the world the child comes to know through experience. A world that helps the child to know what it is. Which is to say, to understand all of the ways it is not the other.

But there is also, as we have seen, another way of engaging the other. This way does not focus on the apparent differences in manifested forms but moves beyond them to the foundational essence of being they share. This, perhaps, was the authenticity of which Picasso spoke. Mythology, as art, reminds us that appearances are always constructions with a subjective history. Our aspirations towards objectivity can only proceed from the admission of a primary subjectivity.

This is the “art” of mythology as reflective experience that Campbell explores. But it is not experience born from the secondary awareness, the awareness of one’s own subjectivity and thus one’s mortality, one’s isolation, one’s futility in the quest to forever exist as an “I.” But, rather, it is an awareness that precedes the knowledge of the private self yet also somehow includes it. The great teachings of the enduring wisdom traditions speak of a reality beyond these limiting binaries, which is the source of their essential natures as well as of all that lies between them; a consciousness that is the ground of being itself. When one is able to regain, through the regenerative power of myth, the ability to “paint like a child,” to unlearn the tragedy of their separateness and once again fully embrace the awe-inspiring mystery of being, they can safely reenter the open space of awareness which allows this moment to be entirely as it is– and it allows for the self to recognize its home in the other. 

Engaging the emancipatory power of myth as a process of artistic reclamation helps us to unlearn the concrete categories of perceived difference. To “paint like a child” is to forever be the witness of our own shared mythological becoming. Discovering the object only when–and this is essential–the subject is no longer able to see itself as wholly apart from that which it beholds. “All great artists draw from the same resource: the human heart,” the poet and activist Maya Angelou reminds us, “which tells us that we are all more alike than we are unalike.”

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