Credo as artistI see my tasks as an artist of our time to be twofold and interwoven: to celebrate that which is perishable and endangered, and to nourish and cultivate the capacity for experiencing. This faculty is imperiled as our perceptual apparatus, programmed to distill meaning from the complexity of the natural environment, is bombarded by the cacophony of meaningless auditory, visual and kinetic noises of the industrial environment. Assaulted by the screams and whisperings of seductive promises, admonitions and threats of the advertising industry and of politics. We must learn to disregard these stimuli.
The urban environment perforce renders us somewhat autistic. We avoid eye contact in crowds for fear of making contact with a madman or a criminal. Working in windowless rooms, where temperature, light, and air are controlled by powers beyond our reach, we become habituated to stoic resignation. Survival increasingly depends on suppression stimuli. But being protected from overstimulation has as its price an ever-increasing incapacity for emotional response to perception - a kind of living death.
Not submitting to such death entails facing these stimuli and making sense of them, even though they may be disconcerting or repellent. As experience is translated in imagery, the monstrous becomes comprehensible. For example, no plants can grow on soil poisoned by industrial waste, yet the huge cylindrical bodies of chemical tanks, exposed to wind and weather, take on formal dignity that can stand up against the beauty of the wilderness they have invaded.
Urban life is full of contradictions, and our figurative work reflects it. Turning to as yet undefiled woods and meadows, we celebrate the timeless, but also the fragile and endangered. Our perception of nature is no longer tranquil. The act of perceiving is a slow process. It cannot be hurried by employing mechanical devices. The painter must be on the spot. Documenting a split second of existence via the camera cannot replace the integration of messages that reach us, not through the eye alone, but through the totality of an active and receptive mind. I never use a camera. I paint on site, or else I make sketches on site and use them for more complex work in paint, collage, sculpture and mosaic.
The pedagogic methods of the Bauhaus have been formative in my understanding of the visual arts. However, my style has remained consistently representational. Personal expression remains subordinate to the task of interpreting the subject with respectful comprehension.
Artists who matured at the beginning of the twentieth century, before World War I, were in full possession of the artistic heritage of the Western world. A Picasso, a Matisse, a Kokoschka, a Paul Klee had internalized Western art from the Greek, the Etruscan, the Roman art, down to the discoveries of Impressionism. They could, on this basis, also accommodate Oriental art, as well as African masks. Their heritage gave them unprecedented sovereignty. The impetus of their trust enabled younger artists to follow in their footsteps, pushing the limits of art further into the surreal, the abstract, the raw.
To us, the artists of the end of the twentieth century, the art of the Western world has become history, in Europe as well as in America. We can admire it and study it, but we no longer own it. The weight of accumulated wisdom that empowered the revolution of modern art is no longer with us. Lightweight novelty frequently replaces discovery. It is interesting that some of the most powerful art of our time embodies the tragedy of Western culture's perdition, as Anselm Kiefer's forceful and often jarring work attempts to portray the historical, mythological and literary themes of post-war German culture.
In the face of the gap that separates our present from the culture and art that came to an end with the termination of World War II, how should we go on?
Our historical situation is unfavorable. Art has always flourished best when it served some social function. Being amoral, art may serve religion, serve to enhance the power and prestige of kingdoms or aristocratic strong-holds, or celebrate the self-respect of a rising middle class. It can celebrate the cruelties of Assyrian kingdoms, as well as the sufferings of Christ, or the Madonna's joyful love of her infant. It cannot serve a lie. A cruel system that proudly asserts it cruelty can bring forth magnificent art systems such as Stalin's Russia or Hitler's Germany, that deny the suffering they cause and demand of artists to create a false front, inevitably bring forth mediocre, empty art.
Our Western democracies require different kinds of lies. Imagery must promote consumption at all cost. There seems to exist no social function that would require the contribution of art that is not deceitful, yet the hunger for genuine art persists even in our culture.
In the opening chapter of my (1971) book Art as Therapy with Children, I presented the idea that the absence of art in everyday life, and the unfulfilled longing for art experiences, has contributed to the rise of the profession of art therapy. In addition, art therapy seems to constitute a rare area wherein the art indeed serves a social function. Inasmuch as art and psychotherapy both imply a search for inner truth, the endeavor is not inimical to art. Evidently, we cannot expect that art as therapy will bring forth much great or good art. It is unlikely, though, to bring forth pretentious or deceitful productions.
To artists in search of some field wherein their skills, imagination and artistic integrity can be useful, art therapy constitutes an acceptable profession.
In my own life, I have kept my art and art therapy quite separate. My experiences as a practicing art therapist have reassured me that art is not an entirely esoteric, narcissistic pursuit: that it can make sense, provided that I approach my task modestly and respectfully.