Keynote Speech

14 Minute Read

By Harold BalazsMore from this author

Years ago, I saw a neatly penciled graffiti on a bathroom wall proclaiming that 'The artists will save the world'. Pondering that, I sent the wisdom to Gervias Reed, then director of the Henry Gallery in Seattle. He passed it on to Emmet Watson, a columnist. He expanded wittingly but wished they, the artists, would get cracking. When asked to speak here, I saw my opportunity to answer the call and save the world; or at least a small portion of it.

So here I am in front of a bunch of glass melters, asking you to consider some very random thoughts.

Our conference theme, On The Edge, is a very complex idea, especially in this time when each step threatens a misstep which may be our last.

Let us consider the philosophers that have told us that all great art contains three elements. It speaks to our past, telling us what we have been; it tells us about our own time; and extends a promise for the future. I would like to think of these three elements as a metaphor for three important edges of our being.

The history of the survival of our species is due in part because of our willingness to be at or near some edge or another. Anthropologists tell us that the first edge was that of the forest, and how long we cowered in its shadow before we were comfortable in the savannah, and later the hills, where we left our handprints proclaiming I AM. That self awareness forever changed our nature, to the extent that all of our actions since then have been directed at insuring and improving our chances of survival. This in turn has created the cultural world; all that has resulted from the activity of our collective brain. This activity has produced the world we now realize is in conflict with the natural world from which we came.

Now, we find ourselves back at the edge of our first crossing, the forest, headed in the opposite direction, burdened with the baggage of our comforts, seeking solace there, trying to revere our ancient home. In the opening pages of his book, The Masks of God, Joseph Campbell states so succinctly the true nature of that first edge.

"Why should it be that whenever men have looked for something solid on which to found their lives, have chosen not the facts in which the world abounds, but the myths of an immemorial imagination, preferring even to make a hell for themselves and their neighbors, in the name of some violent god, rather than accepting the bounty the world affords. The history books have told of and tried to define us by these struggles. One of those definitions is that we do this thing we have come to call art."

For millennia, we told stories, danced and sang around our campfires. We decorated ourselves, our implements, our dwellings, gathering places and communities. It was a matter of course that we did this. When others visited us, they showed us what they had made and we exchanged with them things of our making (it seemed to please them).

Later, when we could talk of them of these matters, they told us of their word - ART - which made some of the things they made very important and valuable, and their authors acclaimed. We told then we had no such word; we just rejoiced in the doing. Our world is full of the proof of this, for almost all of what we know about those that have gone before is through the stuff they left behind to mark their passing. The reasons for doing it were always the same, and speak of our oneness.

Loren Eisley tells us about the time of that edge in stone without tears. "A common bond links Stonehenge and Easter Island, Mohenjo-Daro and the stone platforms of Tikal. It is not the bond of similar origin, though it is true men have also dreamed that dream. But to science, it is instead the bond of a common mystery of man, the builder, of his first comings and equally mysterious departures. With his hands, man has raised great monuments, but always, as though an awaited message has come, he has laid down his tools and stepped finally and irrevocably through an intangible doorway of air. Perhaps we ourselves will leave only the mysterious heads on Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills to cause wonder among those who visit us from another star. For driven by a fatal destiny, man labors across the eons, and here and there, as in the vast, dreaming faces on Easter Island, he succeeds, but only in stone. For man himself, the greater, the infinitely greater thing, as Hilaire Belloc once said, has a doom upon him of perpetual vanishing. Dark and inexpressible emotions touch us as we look upon these giant failures to communicate. In their very anonymity, they seize upon our minds more powerfully than if we knew their history. They touch some archaic substrate of our being. If they have a voice, it may be the message of our defeat, but the syllables are numerous and have mixed for too many centuries with the wind and the seas."

Harold Balazs at the Enamelist Society Conference 2003, Washington.

Now, the second edge; what is the art of our time telling us of our life and world? Pablo Picasso made this statement: "In art, the mass of people no longer seeks consolation and exaltation, but those who are refined, rich, unoccupied, who are distillers of quintessences, seek what is new, strange, original, extravagant, scandalous. I myself, since Cubism and before, have satisfied these masters and critics with all the changing oddities which passed through my head, and the less they understood me, the more they admired me. By amusing myself with all these games, with all these absurdities, puzzles, rebuses, arabesques, I became famous, and very quickly. And fame for a painter means sales, gains, fortune, riches. And today, as you know, I am celebrated, I am rich. But when I am alone with myself as an artist, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term. Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt were great painters. I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and exploited as best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries. Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than it may appear, but it has the merit of being sincere."

We cannot talk about the art of our time without a few words about the role of criticism. Years ago, Francis Bacon said that there have been those who would make a place for themselves and their opinions by demolishing former thoughts and opinions. But their efforts did not advance scholarship and understanding because their only interest was to transfer the kingdom of opinion of themselves.

That the current art scene is rather strange is not news to any of us. As always, it speaks to all that is noble and generous in the human spirit, while just a step away is an open sewer, to remind us of the darker side of our being.

Annie Dillard, in her book Living by Fiction, suggests that the time has come when works of art no longer need to be validated by interpretation and analysis. And that the critical community is so aligned with commercial interests, anyone seeking acclaim in that arena can no longer be original or truly creative because their work must satisfy the expectations of others. When surrendering to such concerns, it is easy to forget that truth is the first sacrifice when seeking membership in exclusive societies.

The truths I want to examine are those that art tells us of our future, that third edge. Joseph Campbell, again in The Masks of God, "…and the world is not far too small, and men's stake in sanity too great, for any more of those games of CHOSEN FOLK, whether of Jehovah, Wotan, Manu, or the Devil, by which tribesmen were sustained against enemies in the days when the serpent could still talk."

The schemes for survival I mentioned in the first edge are varied and numerous, each of them born of a particular time and place with its circumstances, resulting in a way of being that served the believers, living for the most part, generously. The evidence of that is the rich variety of art left by the centuries. Historians looking at this evidence have begun to ask if any one scheme can be the only, or the best. Considering this, I would ask all of us trying to be artists to conduct our lives so that our efforts are entered on the credit side of the planet's ledger.

We have gathered here from all over to share our passion, the creation of objects and ideas that will bring joy and wonder, if only briefly, to a troubled world. Isn't it ironic to think that we have agreed to submit our ideas to a panel (that we appoint) to select from our numbers those that are good, better, and best? Can't we find the courage to show the work of all comers, and demonstrate to those watching our example that all ideas are worth examining? This is not to say that the juried exhibit is not without merit; all of us like to have our efforts approved of by our peers. It just needs more thought.

Of course, I can hear the choruses of "but how do we maintain quality", especially when we invite the public to view our offerings? We must, of course, have the highest of standards if we are to educate them, dare I say properly? Too often, 'quality' becomes a euphemism for the idiom 'I prefer'. Are we going to be the passionate who exhorts all to sing, or the zealot that insists on choosing the songs?

Back on the first edge, some say the Neolithic, we started specializing our various enterprises; herdsmen, potters, fletchers, carvers, etc. This led to fewer people participating in the creative act, and in effect, told to find enrichment in being audience to those who have excelled in the matters of song, dance and enameling.

There is today a hunger, I feel, to experience the creative process. The enamelist magazine has had a number of articles on how some of our members have found ways to share their talents and expertise with others in a variety of community projects, usually in the creation of a visual experience.

Ever since we left those handprints on cave walls, our primary survival scheme has been competition. Since the horrors of the atomic bomb, our survival must be cooperation. Far too few understand this, not even most of the world's current leaders. The aforementioned community projects are small steps in shared endeavor that are so important to understanding the true spirit of cooperation. I would like to read this statement by Ingmar Bergman, a film maker. He offers valuable insight into the roles an artist may assume.

"There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burnt to the ground. Then thousands of people turned up from various places like a giant procession of ants from all points of the compass. All kinds of people came, and together they began to build up the cathedral on it's old site. They all stayed there until the building was completed - master builders, workers, artists, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral Chartres.

"Regardless of my own beliefs and doubts, which are completely without importance in this connection, it is my opinion that art lost it's creative urge the moment it was separated from worship. It severed the umbilical cord and lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. The individual has become the highest form and greatest bane of artistic creation. Creative unity and humble anonymity are forgotten and buried relics, without significance or meaning. The smallest cuts and moral pains of the ego are examined under the microscope as if they were of eternal importance. Thus, we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our loneliness, without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death. The individualists stare into each others eyes, and yet deny the existence of each other, and cry out into the darkness without once receiving the healing power of communal happiness. We are so affected by our own walking in circles, so limited by our own anxiety, that we can no longer distinguish between the true and the false, between the gangsters ideas and pure ideals.

"If thus I am asked what I should like to be the general purpose of my films, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragons head, an angel or a devil, or perhaps a saint out of stone. It does not matter which, it is the feeling of contentment that matters. Regardless whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian or not, I play my part at the collective building of the cathedral. For I am an artist and a craftsman, and I know how to chisel stone into faces and figures.

"I do not need to concern myself about present opinion, or the judgment of posterity. I am a name which has not been recorded anywhere and which will disappear when I myself disappear, but a little part of me will live on in the triumphant masterwork of the anonymous craftsman. A dragon, a devil, or perhaps a saint; it does not matter which."

We all need to become activists in the search for communal expression, with an emphasis on process and less on the aesthetics of the project. Remember that the creative act rejoices in the differences in things, at edges, if you will. Rather that being frightened by things not understood, the artist, like the scientist, is there to explore and examine. Another of the small steps toward understanding and tolerance.

That art is a balm for healing is something we are all familiar with. Those times of heightened awareness or bliss when time and cares cease and even aches and pains vanish, when all is right with the world, and we are certain of our purpose and worth.

Are there ways we can help others find, in some small measure, purpose and worth; to, in short, help enfranchise them so that disenfranchisement will cease to plague our societies?

There are few experiences today that allow us to rejoice in the knowledge that we have done the best we are capable of. Art is one of those activities. Unless, of course, we are reminded that we have failed to fulfill someone else's expectations.

As I look at the amount of my own production, I sometimes wonder if I am not part of the problem; contributing to mindless consumerism and depletion of natural resources. Should I consider the creation, of what? Some of the substitutes I have engaged in are small press mold ceramic artifacts, grandchildren busywork, that we leave anywhere. When mushroom gathering is unproductive, we make befuddlements out of available materials to cause wonder for those that discover them…

This is all done in the manner of Andrew Goldsworthy, who has taken natural stuff arranging to the level of poetry and pure reverence for the natural world. Look for his books and a documentary film called Rivers and Tides. You will look at the world with new eyes.

In a book entitled No Way, leaders in many disciplines are asked to consider three questions. First, what in your field was considered impossible a decade ago; secondly, how was it overcome; and thirdly, what do you now consider impossible at this time? The answers to the second question interested me the most, as they were rather uniform. Almost all spoke of involvement with minds and ideas from other disciplines, and in particular, the arts and humanities. Interestingly, the answer to the third question was certainty; that was thought to be impossible.

It has been on purpose that I have left so many open-ended thoughts, as I tend to teach and think in incomplete sentences, hoping to generate discussion and thereby generate new ideas.

There is an ancient and obscure philosophy that holds that all of the known laws of the universe periodically change, just to keep us all on our toes. As if to answer to our species seeming need forever changing. While that may be so, I will insist that one thing must never change: that each generation will have in its numbers those that ask us to become the best we can be.

Isn't it ironic to think that we have agreed to submit our ideas to a panel (that we appoint) to select from our numbers those that are good, better, and best? Can't we find the courage to show the work of all comers, and demonstrate to those watching our example that all ideas are worth examining?

Are we going to be the passionate who exhorts all to sing, or the zealot that insists on choosing the songs?

By Harold Balazs [Volume 22, Number 5, December, 2003]
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Harold Balazs

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