Introduction below; for full text please download the PDF above.
I have worked as a sculptor full-time for 44 years. The reason for writing this paper only became clear to me in mid July, 2020. It is a fear that in the 21st century we may be losing contact with, and in turn expression of, the extraordinary emotional, intellectual and physical diversity which our universe brings forth at every moment, and that action needs to be taken to protect it. In the Fine Arts Robert Hughes expressed this loss clearly and strongly when he talked critically about contemporary art, it`s disconnection from the historical, and it`s abandonment of its central purpose, to make the world whole and comprehensible - “The basic project of art is to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you and in this way to pass from feeling to meaning. It`s not something that committees can do, it`s not a task achieved by groups or movements. It`s done by individuals, each person mediating in some way between a sense of history and an experience of the world”. Not all contemporary art, but much of it has entered into the realm of what I would call intellectual relativism, it has disconnected itself from the timeless. This began in the sixties with artists such as Andy Warhol, whereas before, as Hughes points out, artists like Pollock had connections, historically and developmentally, with previous artist movements such as Impressionism and individual artists like Turner. Both historical and timeless connections were broken. This was a big call to make – most significant art produced before then, whether it was Rembrandt, Michelangelo or later on William Blake engaged with the timeless and historical unfolding in many different ways. Post Modernism increased this separation.
Post Modernism had a little to offer, in that it challenged the ultimate, totally purist side of Modernism, but it also had its intellectually downgrading side. The separation from the historical, from the timeless, which appeared in the early sixties reached new extremes with Post Modernism - masturbation stains, faeces making machines, and many more “intellectually” demanding statements were exhibited as art work. Intellectual relativism was to the fore, and under this banner anything can literally be argued to be art; while notions of truth and universality are out the door. In extreme cases, as in the aforementioned examples, levels of absurdity were reached. The Post Modern declaration that truth no longer existed had an ironical side to it – the irony being that this was an ultimate statement in itself; it too was making a truth statement; that truth no longer existed. It was a paradoxical statement. While art making does not have to engage with the timeless, with the historical, it is a bloody, life threatening act to remove it largely from a body of work which has provided emotional and intellectual input of a high standard and transitory nature; which in turn has enriched many cultures, in both the West and East. A major loss of diversity was enacted. I have myself had attacks from artists in Adelaide, my hometown, who see themselves as bastions of the Avant- garde stating – “you are an historical artist”. My reply is always the same – “I am pleased to be called an historical artist”. My work absolutely has connections with Noguchi, Brancusi, Rodin, Henry Moore, Michelangelo, Greek, Egyptian, even Eskimo sculpture - what an extraordinary well to draw from!
The broader loss of diversity is expressed in many other forms; the loss of complex, transformative, yet subtle intellectual and emotional expression in the arts is just one example. The loss of languages and bio-diversity throughout the world are further examples. All of these are sacred expressions of something greater than the individual, but at the same time something with which all individuals should be intimately entwined – this is the role which significant art making should play, connecting people with the broad and wondrous expressions of the universe, which unfold on many interconnected levels. As a practising full – time sculptor for the last 45 years I would say that one powerful quality sculpture can have is connection with the non-verbal dimension, it can function on a symbolic level, thereby acting as a bridge to that which cannot be expressed in words. Sculpture can connect with the timeless, it does not have to do this, but when it does it serves a purpose which is of great value to the community. My sculpture over my whole career has drawn from many interconnected sources, including sculpture itself, mathematics, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, contemporary physics, biology and visual observation. This paper is an exploration of many of these sources/resources; the contemporary and perennial paradigms it brings forth are intended to create/generate discussion about the need in the 21st century for a new operating paradigm on many levels, a post economic growth paradigm where value is comprehensively understood as being far more than a mere financial rendering. I am not looking for perfection here; there may well be some mistakes, in what is at the same time I believe a substantial argument. There is also importantly the intention to generate ongoing conversation. Perfection/ complete understanding of everything is not required to say that worldwide right now there is enough understanding on many interconnected levels, by many people, for a major paradigm shift towards a holistic/ interconnected understanding of our world which renders the old continual growth, materialistic, disconnected and destructive version obsolete. The argument for major intellectual/emotional structural change comes from many sources, it is not owned by any individual. This is important. Discussion in the 21st century between the many individuals and groups who have developed understandings of holistic approaches, which are inclusive of unfolding spiritual and scientific paradigms, is critical right now, because long term, sustainable environmental and cultural models can emerge from these ongoing discussions. One person who has been to the fore in creating such dialogue is the current Dalai Lama; he is fully aware of the potential of such discussions. As he has said the 21st century should be one of open discussion, where the focus is not the individual or the family unit, but the whole planet, which includes all of the people on it. Open, broad minded discussions, combined with action, are critical right now for the future of our extraordinarily beautiful planet.
The following is a mining of the many rich and wondrous resources which have been discovered over a few thousand years by many brave individuals, who have dared to go on a journey of discovery to understand the universe they live in. It is both a dangerous and exhilarating journey, which reveals a common pattern of understanding, following many challenging and often failed encounters. It is a true expression of what Joseph Campbell refers to as the hero`s journey; a common theme expressed in the mythology of many cultures worldwide. Campbell`s favourite piece of writing was Chief Seattle`s letter which was sent in 1855 by Native American Chief Seattle of the Duwamish Tribe to Franklin Pierce, President of the United States, in response to an offer to purchase the Dwamish lands in the North East of the US, currently Washington State. It remains for me also a wise, broad statement and a succinct one about connection with place and questions of spirit; both are urgently needed in the 21st Century to balance technological developments. It sets a scenario for the hero`s journey, for connection beyond the self, and that which lies outside the individual, and accepting responsibility for taking care of it. This becomes more important than individual wants and needs. It brings questions of spirit into the framework of existence; in the West deep understanding of spirit is generally at a low level throughout the culture. In many other cultures, Tibetan, Australian Aboriginal, American Indian, some South American cultures, Indian culture and many more the spiritual aspect was simply part of day to day existence, as digital phones are now in Western technological cultures. The spiritual journey, and the awakening that can occur with it, is what being alive as a human being is really about, to do this one must be open to learn from the journey. As Carl Jung Stated – “Mans task is .... to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious. Neither should he persist in his unconscious nor remain identical with the unconscious elements of his being, thus evading his destiny, which is to create more and more consciousness. As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” American Indian culture was one culture that was spiritually engaged, the Chief Seattle letter oozes with an understanding beyond the materialistic. This form of understanding affects the operating manual of both the individual and the culture as a whole – it is expressed in differing forms in many high synergy cultures worldwide. In different ways it needs to be introduced, through educational programmes, in the West. Combined with action it could still create a sustainable, compassionate world for future generations. The Chief Seattle letter of 1855 to Congress provides then a good foundation stone to start from and reads as below:
Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. The Great Chief also sends us words of friendship and good will. This is kind of him, since we know he has little need of our friendship in return. But we will consider your offer, for we know if we do not so the white man may come with guns and take our land. What Chief Seattle says you can count on as truly as our white brothers can count on the return of the seasons. My words are like the stars – they do not set.
How can you buy or sell the sky – the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. Yet we do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. How can you buy them from us? We will decide in our time. Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing, and every humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap that runs through the trees carries the memories of the red-skinned man.
The dead among the white man forget their birthplace when they leave to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth because she is the redman’s mother. We are part of the earth and she is part of us. The scented flowers are our sisters: the horned beasts, the horse and the majestic eagle are our brothers. The fields, the warm body of the foal and man, all belong to the same family. Thus when the Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our lands, he is asking for a great deal. The Great Chief sends word that he will reserve a space for us to live comfortably with each other. He will be our father and we will be his children. Because of this, we will consider his offer to buy our lands. But this will not be easy, because these lands are a sacred to us. The sparkling water that runs in the rivers and streams is not only water; it is the blood of our ancestors. if we sell you these lands, you must remember that they are sacred, and teach your children that they are, and that every ghostly reflection in the clear waters of the lakes speaks of the lives and memories of the life of my people. The murmur of the stream is the voice of my father’s father.
The rivers are our sisters, and calm our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes and feed our children. If we sell you our lands, you must remember and teach your children that the rivers are our kin and your kin; you must henceforth treat the rivers as kindly as you would your brothers and sisters.
We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his father’s graves and his children’s birthright is forgotten. He strips the earth from his children and cares not. He forgets his father’s tomb and the rights of his children. He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother the heavens, as if they were things that could be bought, plundered and sold, as though they were lambs and glass beads. His insatiable hunger will devour the earth and leave behind a desert.
I do not understand. Our ways are different to yours. The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the redman. But perhaps it is because the redman is a savage and does not understand. There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to listen to the leaves of spring or the rustle of insect wings. But perhaps because I am a savage and do not understand –the clatter only seems to insult the ears. And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lovely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night? I am a redman and I do not understand. The Indian prefers the soft sound of the wind itself cleansed by a mid-day rain, or scented by a pinõn pine. The air is precious to the redman. For all things share the same breath –the beasts, the trees, and the man. The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes. Like a man dying for many days, he is numb to the stench. If we sell you our lands, you must remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life it sustains. And, if we sell you our lands, you must set them aside and keep them sacred as a place that even the white man may go to to taste the wind sweetened by the flowers in the grasslands. If I decide to accept your offer, I will make one condition. The white man must treat the beasts of this land as his brothers. I am a savage and I do not understand any other way. I have seen thousands of rotting buffaloes on the prairie left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. I am a savage and do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be more important than the buffalo that we kill only to stay alive. What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beast also happens to the man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth.
You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of their grandparents. In order that they may respect the earth, teach them that the earth is full of the life of our ancestors. You must teach your children what we have taught ours: that the earth is our mother. Everything that affects the earth affects the sons of the earth. When men spit on the ground they spit on themselves.
We know this: the earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth. Man has not woven the net of life: he is just a thread in it. Everything he does to this net he does to himself. What befalls the earth will befall the sons of the earth. We know this. All things are bound up in each other like the blood that binds the family. Chief Seattle, Letter to Congress, 1855
A profound letter indeed! It should be noted that the authenticity of the letter is disputed, even though the Smithsonian Institute quote from it, when showing people around. It may have been composed by a journalist of the time, but even if this is the case, it reflects very clearly the cultural nuances of the indigenous Indians of North America; cultural nuances which contrast greatly with those of the incoming colonialists, who ravaged both the environment, and the people who had cared for that environment for thousands of years. Chief Seattle did address Congress in person; his sentiments in that speech are very similar to the letter. As such, whatever is the source, what he expressed is culturally and historically important. In the 21st century our economic model based on continual growth must go. Our financial, economic structuring needs to be subservient to, and structured around, an “accounting” system which looks at our bio-diversity, climate and cultural balance first. The economy would then, at a second tier level, react to this. We are clearly overdrawn at present. Initially urgent action needs to be taken to restore the natural balance in our ecological system, which we are integrally a part of. This is the lesson to be learnt from the wisdom cultures of the world, they have learnt to live with and care for place. These cultures understand, in an advanced and sophisticated manner, the sacred nature of place.