Tradition and...

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Mystery and the Art Experience   1      2      3      -      PRINTER VERSION

Published in Ceramics: Art and Perception, 2005.

"If mystery is manifest through things, the universe becomes as it were, a holy picture. You are always addressing the transcendent mystery through the conditions of the actual world."1
   —Joseph Campbell

We human beings are burdened with self-awareness and with that comes a longing to know why we are here and the purpose of our life. Religion and new age psychology both provide seemingly reasonable answers to these questions, but still this sense of mystery about our nature remains as strong in us as it was in our ancestors thousands of years ago before recorded history. How do we know this, because those ancient peoples left behind compelling objects that eloquently addressed these questions. Objects that still are able to create, for those who are sensitive to it, the kind of transcendental moment often referred to as the art experience. I believe that a key aspect of the art experience is a sense of mystery. It is the senses of mystery, for example, that these old objects possess, that give them the ability to connect with that part of us struggling to come to grips with the nature of our own existence. And it is what makes them resonate as strongly today as they did when they were made. Now the kind of mystery I am alluding to has nothing to do with the object being rare or culturally unknown. Work that is truly mysterious maintains its power even after we come to know its provenance. The kind of mystery I am speaking of poses questions rather giving us answers, it is not old or new, beautiful or ugly, clever or dumb, and is unresolved yet somehow seems perfect. It points to what is not known, and causes us to reflect on that ultimate mystery of what it means to be human.

Of course, when we talk about mystery, the question arises, is it an essential or even a desirable element in this modern age. Our immediate access to unprecedented amounts information has caused culture to sometimes look on those not having the facts about every manner of thing as lazy and lacking intelligence, curiosity and creativity. Even the field of art is caught up in this information frenzy. Postmodern art, for example, seems increasingly to be about itself. Unless an artist stays up with all the current names and trends (and by this I mean their work reflects them) then he or she runs the risk of being dismissed as a second rate, provincial artist. It is the known and recognized that is celebrated. This has led to the pronounced tendency in the arts for artists to measure their success in the field by their celebrity status. In the name, ironically of "bridging the gap between art and life" postmodern art objects have become non-aesthetic, conceptual works whose main purpose seems to be to gain notoriety and commercial reward for its maker. It is obvious that the idea of art as a kind of transcendental experience is not the view of art that is commonly held at this moment in postmodern art. Donald Kuspit in his book, The End of Art, says: "What the artist always fears has become reality in the social phenomenon called postmodern postart. It is the end of art as it has existed from the prehistoric caves to the Rothko Chapel. It certainly no longer exists in sacred space, but on the street, and there is nothing sacred about it because its made for the street crowd."2

We in the ceramics field are not immune to this trend. However, we still believe, at least to some degree, in the idea of aesthetic beauty. Unfortunately, our idea of aesthetic beauty has a tendency to

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