The Aerial Ladders of Artistic Impulse

Domenico_Beccafumi_056Creativity is, at best, an artifice to those who are waltzing their way to the grave. Perhaps this concept of the artificial was inculcated in my mind by the education landscape of the postmodernist world. Prior to modernism, creativity was a shadow or reflection of the sacred, of crucial beginnings, of endings that implied beginnings in a new world that was either good or bad.

Despite modernism, death is a reality that we must face. It can’t be avoided. Therefore, creation becomes a grasping for life–a mimicry of what we can’t achieve. This may seem to lack a logical connection for many, not worthy of a therefore, but it is a concept that, rather, is what it is. Human incapacity for logic has nothing to do with it. What can we really create to further or expand life, aside from offspring? Our children are our greatest achievements this side of death, and, yet, we have little control over the object produced. We can control, to an extent, whom we mate with, and that is all. Genetic selection doesn’t involve our mental processes. It happens when one particular sperm penetrates one particular egg. The inner and outer canvas that is human life is encoded by complex genetics outside our control. Don’t bore me with science fiction concepts, of scientists who play God. I’m speaking of the way the vast majority of humans, present and past, have produced offspring. They love and they lust, and they produce children.

How does the creation of art become a fulfilling endeavor for the artist and for the viewer of art? This is something I’ve mulled over since high school, and the sensation of having completed a cycle and returned to the same place I was at, mentally, when I was seventeen, is a little disconcerting. A long time ago, I had a dream in which I was traveling in an SUV up a mountain road and, along the way, ladders projected into the sky, held aloft by nothing, and, yet, workmen still climbed the ladders with their toolboxes in order to fix electrical or telephone wires, or whatever happened to be up there but empty sky. As the car drove toward the ladders, they remained standing. After passing them, however, the ladders toppled, and I could watch them toppling in the rear view mirror. This is the image that inevitably rears up in my mind when I consider my growth as an artist since high school. I never resolved the issues I had; I never resolved the internal conflict that nihilism creates in the soul. Instead, I continued forward, mounting ladders that I expected to stand on their own.

This, I imagine, is the dilemma that all artists face. Creation is a paradox. We can’t create matter from nothing. We can’t perpetuate life in and of ourselves, but the compulsion to create still exists inside the soul. And so we find ourselves gathering the preexisting materials of the universe and making something of them that is meaningful to ourselves and to others. The meaning, however, is dim. It’s symbolic; it’s artifice. It’s the work of people trapped deep inside Plato’s Cave, attempting to represent what we believe is the universe. Those shadows we see: they represent the known universe. Those stars, galaxies, and multiplex of galaxies: they represent the known universe. They represent the dome, the inside of the cave. What we create inside the cave is akin to ladders leading nowhere.

How is art fulfilling? How does it express or create meaning in the human consciousness? Can it ever rise above symbol? I don’t know the answers because, as I already admitted, I’m back to the same questions that filled my mind at the age of seventeen. I’ve watched the devastation of the falling ladders and have continued, nevertheless, to erect more. Perhaps, someday, one of my ladders will find a fortified wall on which to lean. But I have a sinking suspicion that when I reach to the top of that ladder, I will have reached the end of my life.



  1. I read in a book about some Carthusian monks who spend a lot of time making art and when it’s finished they throw it in the fire.

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