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Art of the Self

“How can I make great art?” I asked my high school art teacher, Karl Connolly.

When he inquired what I meant by “great,” I replied, “Art that reaches everyone. Something universal.” I clarified my intention, “I want to make art that gets at the heart of things, that speaks to everyone.”

Karl’s eyes lit up, then he leaned forward at his desk. He pulled out a piece of charcoal and drew a series of concentric circles. “Look,” he said with his subtle Irish accent. “There are two ways to do that, and they’re opposites.”

He explained as he drew, “Some people say that selves are like onions. It’s an old cliché. Each of us has layer upon layer. Here on the outside,” he pointed at the outermost circle, “is our social life. This is where many of us spend most of our lives. We talk about the latest TV we watched, the weather or traffic, or who texted what to whom.”

He then drew a line down the onion shape, cutting through each of the layers. “This is you. When you talk about superficial stuff, you’re here on the outside. The further you go inward into yourself, the more ‘deep’ you get, as the term goes. Talking about deeper stuff like ideas and emotions. Eventually,” he pointed at the center, “you get all the way down. This is your innermost core, or the ‘heart of things’ as you were asking about. This is where you go on your darkest nights. This is where ideas and emotions dissolve into something unspeakable. It’s hard to talk about this place, but we all know about it, we all visit it.”

He leaned back in his chair. “Now let me ask you a question: What would it mean to make art from this place?”

“How do you talk about the thing that you can’t even talk about?” I asked.

“Now you’re getting it,” he replied. “That’s why we have art.” He went on to explain. “This onion shape isn’t just you. It’s everyone.” He then drew a few other lines cutting down the onion, like spokes on a wheel. “Each of these lines is a different person, and each of them, just like you, can travel downwards into their innermost core. Now, let’s talk geometry for a moment. Which of these distances is greater?” He pointed at two places on the outside, then two places about halfway down.

“The lines are converging,” I replied. “The greatest distance is on the outside.”

“Right,” he said. “Now let’s stay on the outside for a moment. You say you want to make art that touches everyone. How far do you have to reach to do this? Look at how much circle there is to cover. If you want to reach this guy over here, you have to go all this distance. At best you can only get your hands partway around the outside.” He smiled slyly. “This is what it feels like to try to please everyone. It’s exhausting, and at best you only get halfway around. As your teacher, I’d encourage you not to make art from this place.”

He continued, “As you go deeper and deeper into yourself, the concentric rings become tighter and tighter. Make art about ideas or emotions, and it becomes a lot easier to reach people. But here’s the kicker,” he pointed at the direct center of the onion sphere. “The center of you is the center of everyone else. This is the point where all the lines converge. The only catch is, this is the place we can’t talk about, the unspeakable place beyond ideas and feelings.”

“You want me to make art there?” I coyly asked.

“I want you to make art there,” he said with confidence.

****

This story came flooding back to me while reading a book on Carl Jung. I came across this diagram, drawn by Anthony Stevens, in his introduction to Jung.1 Here, Stevens is mapping out the different ideas in Jung’s work, ideas like “ego,” “consciousness,” “personal unconscious,” and “collective unconscious.”

Jung's model of the human psyche, with "ego" on the outside, and "The Self" on the inside.

Jung’s model of the human psyche, with “ego” on the outside and “The Self” on the inside, and the line of introspection cutting down the middle.

Like a bolt of lightening, these two schematics linked in my mind. More than just an analogical connection, these two ideas have literally the same shape, down to the line cutting through the concentric onion, stretching from “ego” to “Self.”

For Jung, the psyche is almost identical to how Karl described it to me. Here, the ego is on the outside ring in a thin band of consciousness. When we go deeper, we get into the personal unconscious, and deeper still to the archetypes residing in the collective unconscious.

At the center of it all resides the Self. Now, this is a confusing term since Jung means the word in the opposite sense we usually mean it. The thing we usually think of as the “self” is what Jung calls the “ego.” Instead, Jung means the word in the way it’s used in much eastern philosophy and religion. When he places “Self” with a capital “S” in the center of the diagram, he’s referring to what the Upanishads refer to as the “Self.”2

To quote Eknath Easwaran in his introduction to the Upanishads: “In all persons, all creatures, the Self is the innermost essence. And it is identical with Brahman: our real Self is not different from the ultimate Reality called God.”3

Superimposing these two diagrams upon one another, we get a model for art making (or any form of creative communication) that touches something we might call “universality.” Dive deep in your introspection or meditation, reach your unspeakable core, then, as Karl said to me, “Make art there.” Struggle to communicate the incommunicable. Try to express through words or ideas, through color or light, through line or movement, through sound or dance, the very thing that is most uniquely “you.” So deep is this part of “you” that it is outside of ego and identity. This is no longer your self. This is the Self.

I return again to the amazing Joseph Campbell, who writes about this very predicament of communicating the incommunicable:

“How render back into light-world language the speech-defying pronouncements of the dark? …How communicate to people who insist on the exclusive evidence of their senses the message of the all-generating void?”4


Footnotes:

1. [Anthony Stevens, Jung: A Very Short Introduction, p. 49, Oxford University Press, 2001.]
2. [To make matters even more confusing, the thing I call “non-self” is what the Upanishads mean when they say “Self.” The Upanishads use the term “Self” to help articulate the fact that this Thing is You. That God isn’t some inaccessible force sitting on a throne somewhere issuing commands at lower classes, but that God is that Thing at your deepest core. I love this notion, but prefer the term “non-self” since, in our society, self is so linked to ideas like identity and ego, and the particularities of difference. “Self with a capital S,” or “non-self,” is about pushing beyond ego boundaries.]
3. [Eknath Easwaran, The Upanishads, p. 38, Nilgiri Press, 2007.]
4. [Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 189, New World Library, 2008.]

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