Joyful Participation in the Sorrows of the World
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It’s a coolish morning in late September. I’m drinking coffee sitting out front in the shade looking at the mountains of Joshua Tree, California. I moved to the desert from Los Angeles earlier this year, just before the pandemic took over here in the United States.
I’m trying to sort out and write down why I’ve made these skull paintings. Some colorful, some black and white, all simple gestural paintings on paper. I made them as a kind of meditation and am undecided about whether I’ll show them to anyone or not.
“Skulls” are on a shortlist (with guns and pills) of subject matter in art that I disdain emphatically.
But these are different times.
Why does art depicting skulls, guns, or pills usually leave me so disappointed? I ask myself again, as I have asked myself this question many times over the years, and I believe it’s because this art often relies on making its impact by fetishizing neurosis. It’s spiritually toxic, and it’s a tedious bore once the titillation has passed.
Why does this immature posture intrigue us so handily? Perhaps the underlying sense is that a focus on this once-provocative subject matter celebrates the daring wild-child we’d all like to be if only we had the courage, but I’d like it more if it pointed to real freedom and not just juvenile rebellion.
Maybe there is a Halloween element of prodding the things that scare us out into the light so that we can feel like we have some small advantage over them.
Or maybe for some there is a thrill in perpetuating the myth of the artist as supreme jackass, whose clinging to selfish actions and self-destructive torment is offered as proof of genius. But there is no genius without wisdom and no wisdom without kindness.
I strongly dislike the work of Damien Hirst, and I particularly dislike the diamond-encrusted skull he had created for him by a jeweler in 2007 during a time of relative peace and prosperity.
That skull, cast in platinum from a real skull (without its consent), containing real teeth that once moved through the world in someone’s actual head (the goddamned exploitation of that, too), covered in many millions of dollars worth of jewels is a perverse and depressing demonstration of hubris.
It’s not a Memento Mori (which means Remember That You Die), a reminder that life is short so we’d better use our time wisely, as the artist might have us believe. No, it’s an ego driven stunt in a long line of ego-driven stunts which flaunt material wealth and the power it wields, enjoying the delusion that such wealth also provides mastery over death and decay -- or at least affords VIP treatment in the afterlife. I feel disgusted by everything it stands for. There. I said it.
To be honest, such art summons an indignant voice in my head that asks, “I mean, yeah, do what you want but, you can create anything, and you decided to do that? This is how you’re spending your time? This is your gift to humanity?”
Now I’ve gone and made some skull paintings, against all my expectations, so I want to better understand why. What could my modest little skull paintings possibly have to do with any of this? Nothing and everything.
I want my relationship with art and creation to take me to places of ecstasy and peace and transcendent embodied wisdom. Whether I achieve this or not may be the subject of a different essay, but I believe in aiming for these things, nonetheless. I want to know the world intimately and kindly. One of the ways I feel my way through the world is by the strange alchemy of painting.
I made these paintings of skulls on paper a few months into Covid-19 isolation.
I’ve been trying to look our present circumstances in the face. I’m trying to reconcile within myself the conflict between the profound beauty of life with the threats we face, the realities we face. The world. The people. Our own vulnerable, pain-susceptible bodies.
I’ve moved to the desert. It is quiet and spacious and beautiful.
There is a virus haunting our shared spaces. It severely damages the human body.
There is police brutality and systemic racism destroying lives. Righteous protesters are subjected to further violence.
There is the escalating climate catastrophe caused by our materialistic way of life.
There is an authoritarian regime working to dismantle the United States into a fascist society, wreckage to be pillaged by the quickest thieves.
I mourn the loss of life and grieve for the grieving.
I rage at the incompetence and selfishness, the misguided priorities driven by greed and fear.
I strive to discern the best actions I can take to make a difference. I do what I can. There is so much to stand up for, so many to protect.
How do we participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world?
It’s a theme Joseph Campbell found woven throughout the myths of all times and geographies. How do we do it?
How do we see -- really see and respond to our times? And how do we keep going? Not just focusing on survival, but perceiving and engaging with the much deeper phenomena of all that is unfolding -- and loving it throughout?
Campbell taught that mythology can give us a paradigm for understanding and embracing our position here in existence between birth and death, knowing that, for starters, our very sustenance depends on devouring the life of another, the plant or animal that dies so that we may live. The stories give us a framework to see our place in the big picture and the wisdom to understand what makes it all worthwhile in spite of the challenging terms and the steep cost of participation.
Skulls and representations of skulls bring with them layers and layers of myth and meaning and history and emotion. I wanted to learn what I could if I dared to engage them in conversation. I’ll admit I’m afraid. It’s hard to predict where a big question will lead you.
Skull as death, skull as plague and violence -- but also skull as… something we have in common. Simplified essence of humanity, frailty, endurance. Making peace with an ultimate destination. Some of these skulls are colorful, almost irreverent in their detached cheerfulness. Skull as truth. Facing what’s really real. Skull as intimacy -- what could be closer to us, but also more mysterious and hidden from us. Skull as fear. And facing fear. Skull as honest vulnerability and courage. Playful skulls that know what’s at stake and still laugh and sing in spite of it. Because of it. In response to it and in defiance of it, reaching depths of essential being and love which transcend the current circumstances of time and space.
Memento Mori -- We're still in the game -- Play ball!