Cortesia: Bruce Herman, Artist in Residence

Editor’s Note: This is the first post in our new Artists in Residence series, a series intended to draw working artists like Bruce Herman, Alfonse Borysewicz and Makoto Fujimura into the theology/arts conversation here on Transpositions. 

In his book Real Presences, George Steiner begins half-jokingly by imagining a country where no “secondary” art criticism is allowed; where the only critique of a painting is another painting, the only analysis of a symphony is another symphony. Of course the joke is that this country exists everywhere and always has, and the primary “criticism” of art-commenting-on-art has always been around–but the secondary form of criticism has overtaken it in the past hundred years or more. Analysis has nearly replaced making-as-commentary, verbal critique has eclipsed the traditional means of elaborating or evolving a style. In former centuries an artist or poet assumed that she or he must first master the tradition personally before “commenting” on it by producing a better or more complex or different and developed style or content or form. That tradition might be called the “long apprenticeship.” And a central part of that tradition was courtesy––the welcome and gracious admission of the younger artist by the master into the conversation of art.

In Real Presences Steiner spends a full third of his book elaborating this concept of cortesia, the intellectual welcome that is required of the artist as well as the beholder, writer as well as reader, composer as well as audience. Without this elemental trust and gracious welcome the apprentice never learns. Without this open door to enter the world of the novel or symphony the reader or audience member never experiences the beauty and mystery of the story or music. It is the nature of genuine courtesy to create a space of freedom and ease, a place of warm welcome where those lacking confidence and status can experience and participate. In one sense, all hospitality is like this: the stranger, the needy treated as the honored guest, just as in Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast. And art is meant to be a feast open to all.

In the past three years I’ve had the blessing of collaborating with two close friends on projects that model the reality of artistic courtesy. In the first instance, the co-authoring of a book, Through Your Eyes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), in the second, a touring exhibition entitled QU4RTETS (read the Transpositions review of the latter here). In both cases the whole became greater than the sum of the parts. The synergy created in the conversation, the constant dialogue required to produce these collaborative projects, was ennobling and stretching and helped to propel me into a creative space I hadn’t known on my own. In effect, the hospitality and courtesy required to collaborate is the very thing that generated the work of art.

My co-author, Walter Hansen, was the common link in both the book and the touring exhibit–and it was his literal hospitality that created the space for both of these successful projects. Walter invited Mako Fujimura and me to dinner and served us great food, great wine, and great conversation. It was that evening, during the meal that we discovered that the three of us shared a common influential text, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Eliot’s masterpiece became our touchstone. Since then, Yale composer Christopher Theofanidis has written an astonishing piece of music to accompany the touring show. At the Still Point harmonizes the entire project and extends our artistic vocabulary.

The other project, Through Your Eyes, contains in its title the very heart of what I am laboring to express: it is through the eyes of the other, through their ears, imagination, intellect and heart that the work of art comes into being. The courtesy and risk of hospitality, the welcoming of the other across the threshold into one’s intimate place of being––this basic risk is what brings the work of art into the world. Without this kind of trust between artist and beholder, between artist and artist, the work of art remains dormant or dead. The hospitality of collaboration and the courtesy of welcoming the other into our deepest conversations are the hallmarks of great art. And the greatest artists are accessible to all audiences.

Why is this? Because accessibility is not mediocrity, but a sign of courtesy.

 

 

 

4 Comments

  • Stefan Waligur says:

    Beautful! And a timely reminder to me as I begin studies here at St. Andrews University. As a composer of new music I very much appreciate the giving and receiving of Courtesia.
    Thank you.
    Stefan
    www.songsofpeace.net

  • Cole Matson says:

    “Because accessibility is not mediocrity, but a sign of courtesy.”

    This.

  • Daniel Imburgia says:

    Interesting post thanks. I have not read the book but I have some questions (I am both an artist, writer, worker, and stranger). At first reading I appreciated the general theme and tone of the piece, but sentences like these: “It is the nature of genuine courtesy to create a space of freedom and ease, a place of warm welcome where those lacking confidence and status can experience and participate. In one sense, all hospitality is like this: the stranger, the needy treated as the honored guest, just as in Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast. And art is meant to be a feast open to all.” Are troubling to me.

    First, it may be the job of courtesy to create spaces of ease, but is it always the ‘job’ of art? Should art always be easily accessible to everyone everywhere? Is there a place for prophetic art that challenges the beholders and makes them uncomfortable, perhaps challenges some of their prejudices or injustices? I am an icon painter but I also paint in other genres including conceptual art. One large piece I painted/constructed was composed of inscribed images carved into the walls of cells at Auschwitz. I faithfully reinscribed copies of original inscriptions from the condemned Jews and other prisoners and consolidated onto one large panel. When I display this work it is usually accompanied by a piece which includes pencil rubbings I made from the stone monument that sets at the Wounded Knee burial site on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where my wife and I worked for many years, and has all the names of those murdered in the massacre inscribed into it. I usually display these works opposite of each other so that it places the viewer between these two horrorific sites of holocaust. How would works like this fit into your thesis that art should be a “ place of warm welcome” and a “feast to all?” I very much like the idea though of artists being open and hospitable, especially to those who are poor and oppressed, and I am going to think a bit more about this and this might relate to actual art-making. Much obliged, Daniel.

    p.s. you can see one piece I mentioned by clicking on my icon up there among the blogger “likes.” It is currently displayed at the Seattle Graduate School of Theology and Psychology in Seattle, again, obliged.

    • Bruce Herman says:

      Thanks for helping to clarify things Daniel. I certainly did not intend that all art needs to be “cozy” — and now that you mention it, it does seem that a reader could easily have misunderstood my intention there in the sentence you quoted. Like you, I think art needs the latitude to sometimes be confrontational–particularly when the artist sees something that needs to be exposed, and which perhaps is being papered over in her society. The term “prophetic” is a good one if used in a colloquial sense. I don’t think that artists are really prophets in the biblical sense, and more often than not I believe that the “use” of art is more for the celebration of beauty in its multifaceted mystery (not prettiness, but beauty in the grander sense of the term that includes the sublime). I realize that this flies in the face of a lot of modernist thinking about art, but I am convinced, for reasons too numerous to go into in this brief comment, that beauty is the heart of visual art. When art is wholly focused on the confrontational or a kind of brutal “truth-telling” I think it veers too close to propaganda or “message art” — which for me is a loss. I throw in my lot with Matisse more than with Francis Bacon. Matisse once said: “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” Maybe this seems trite when there is so much injustice in the world, but I feel that art can offer insight and comfort more than it can save the world from wrong. Good politicians, judges, pastors, and others seem better suited to that. Just my two-cents worth.
      Bruce

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