The Art of Fred Martin
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Art over the Sofa... and other places
Adapted from my Studio Notes of June, 2003
Essay of the Month, August 2003
 

June 6. Afternoon, Oakland.
Remembering the nasturtiums climbing on the fence:
The generations shine, each after each, gazing glowing into the sun.

*

Several years ago, one of my sons gave me three coffee mugs for Christmas.  One said, “Go to your studio, guilt is gravity,” and had a picture of a paneled green door (remembering the early porno film Behind the Green Door?).  Another said, “Creativity is Timeless.”  And the third said, “Good Art will never go over the sofa.”  Wondering where my art might go, and thinking maybe over the sofa is better than the dump, I came across the following studio note:

From my studio notes, June 22, 1985. 
Oakland, early morning.
We are a tangle of vibrations searching for harmony.  Beauty is harmony.  A work of art can give beauty, harmony to its owner.  That is, in a sense, the purpose of the collector, to find harmony in himself and in his world.  That, too, is the purpose of the artist, to make the things that are the signs, the key signatures, the talismans, the crystals, the aeolian harps for harmony in the world.

I am an artist, my work is a gourd full of the seeds of harmonies of the world.  My purpose is to serve my world with the gift of these harmonies.

Mid morning.
What about art, Fred, what about art?  How does it work?  Art touches our strings, it makes them to sound in harmonious chords.  How does it do that, Fred, how does it do it?

Art does that by touching the strings of perception—the neurons—of sight, sound, touch (and taste and smell) in such a way as to harmonize them—key relations in the scale of notes, in the spectrum of all light, the certain colors in a scale of colors, in the universality of all space, the certain intervals (the “cuts”) in the spaces of up, down, left, right, front, back—art brings the strings of our physical bodies into harmony by stimulating them to vibrate in harmonious intervals.

But art stimulates more than only physical vibrations.  It stimulates memory of harmonies past, and longing for harmonies which might come… thus art stimulates longing, which it may share with nostalgia.  Art stimulates associational networks of images in the mind, and these, like the physical networks of sensation in the body, have their harmonic structures, their “intervals,” their patterns of associative energy… the “wholeness of the self,” in Jungian terms.

Thus art makes two separate systems, the perceptual and the associational, of possible vibrations in the human being resounding harmoniously within themselves and together…

…and that is why we hunger for art, because that resounding whole then resounds both inner and outer, the self and the world.

…some people call that state “understanding”
…some people call that state “beauty”
…some call it “prayer”
…alchemists called it “the work”
…artists call it “art”

What, then, can a little picture do, hanging on the wall, looked at seldom, becoming part of the furniture, the decoration of a room?  It can remind of harmonies that once were, and in reminding keep open the opportunity for those harmonies to be again.  In that sense, the little picture on the wall is nostalgic, and in that same sense it is prophetic… and in that same sense, because past and future are always present in us, the little picture on the wall is the key to the doorway of now.

What about museums, Fred, what about museums?  Museums are storehouses of objects of art.  Objects are the inert things of art; works of art are our experiences, our working with the vibrations those things can cause in us.  Museums display their things so we can catch their vibrations. Museums can make great symphonies of those vibrations.  Even museum buildings, to house those things and their symphonies of sounds, are objects which can become works of art… worlds of vibration, perceptual and associational… worlds of art in which we can enter.

What about dissonance, Fred, what about pain and horror?  What about all the art that is ugly and painful in the world?  And what about insipidity, and sweetness, and falseness in art?  Men and women work together to make the art of their age; that art resounds with the vibration of that age as they know it.  It has both that which they wish to escape (and their art shows those vibrations as repulsive), and that which they are and that which they wish to become (and their art shows those vibrations as desire).  A period in human culture grows old and dies, much of its art vibrates only worn out, irrelevant, false or even by then dead and broken strings.  Those strings have been kept because once they worked, and it is at this time that nostalgia becomes strong in the hope that those strings may work again.  It is at this time also that ugliness and horror become strong, as new strings never before touched are stuck, new muscles used and old, weak, exhausted and dying flesh is torn away.  Then ugliness and horror in art may become health; then, in the time of the muffled, flaccid, weak strings of the old order, then cacaphony may become the secret of the harmony of the new, the vibrant, the alive.  The true harmony always hurts just a little, always reaches into a few raw nerves never before touched, a few associations almost too painful to remember, to expect or to bear.  That is the ugliness buried in every beauty (and the beauty, too, buried in every ugliness: that the vibrations are reaching toward harmony and it is our work to help them toward their goal.)

What about healing, Fred, can art heal?  Art gives the vibrations of harmony: the well person and the well society are in states of harmonious vibration.  Can art heal the person, can art heal the society?  Art can contribute to health for person and community, but person and community must do other work in other modes as well.  (Art is only one mode among the many modes of being in the world.  Some art may guide some modes, but, finally, for righting the body you must also work in the body—medicine—and for righting the world you must also work in the world—politics.)  Art may help to heal, may even sometimes guide—and always remind; but in the contest of this world in time, Death will always be at last stronger and will triumph, just as life is strongest and will triumph in the timeless world of eternity.

Art works, then, by touching in us, in our physical and mental bodies, touching in us the paths of energy and looping and joining them into harmonious patterns and vibrating those patterns until we resonate into the whole… resonating the whole or ourselves and ourselves as part of the whole resonance of the world.  Because this pattern was in us from the beginning, because this vibration and wholeness is waiting always to be sounded, that is why Plato said, “All learning is remembering.”

*

Coda:
What, then, can a little picture do, hanging on the wall, looked at seldom, becoming part of the furniture, the decoration of a room?  It can remind of harmonies that once were, and in reminding keep open the opportunity for those harmonies to be again.  In that sense, the little picture on the wall is nostalgic, and in that same sense it is prophetic… and in that same sense, because past and future are always present in us, the little picture on the wall is the key to the doorway of now.

June 10, 2003.  Oakland, sunset.
Sun and shadows flicker and shift on the glass of the dining room window; the last light caught in the crystal fruit of the chandelier is steady, shining, clear, bright.

Art is a crystal shining in the sun.