So much of art-making is bearing witness–to things we love, to things that wound. And often they are the same things: The beauty that breaks your heart. The brutality that tears it open and lets the light in.
The image above, Rodin’s seven-foot bronze study for his most famous sculpture “The Burghers of Calais,” is art that hurts, and heals. It tells the story of how six citizens during France’s Hundred Year War with England volunteered to sacrifice themselves to save the town. The sculpture shows the pain and suffering, self-doubt and determination of the men as they are led away to captivity. It bears witness to that cruelty, that self-sacrifice, that love. How it’s all wrapped together.
This need to bear witness to how it’s all wrapped together is not new. It’s been written over and over again by poets and artists though the ages. I’ve written about it here on these pages, in my homage to Marc Clamage’s paintings of the homeless, in my meditations upon a deer’s scream and my mother’s death, and the beauty and brutality in the hills of Vietnam.
Not surprisingly I write about it in my novel From the Far Ends of the Earth. And I write about it there in terms of art-making, how turning the underbelly outward in our art can be a healing process, how it lets the light in. For the artist and the viewer.
“If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it?” Franz Kafka once asked. “What we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves. . . . A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”
Gwendolyn Brooks wrote:
Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms.
Art hurts. Art urges voyages–
and it is easier to stay at home,
the nice beer ready.
What we see and experience out there in the world and in our own hearts bears witnessing. Not only the beauty, but the brutality as well. While the first lifts us up and makes us soar, the latter throws us down in the pit. It confounds us, it confuses us, it demolishes us. It makes us want to stand up on our hind feet and howl. It makes us want to cut open our wrists and bleed out our anguish on the page. It makes us want to splash our pain in brilliant colors across the canvas.
It makes us rage against the night, and at the very same time trace the frgile broken bones of the milky way across the sky with awe and wonder.
It’s the roil of chaos that boils over into stars and star-dust, and becomes the tender, naked beauty of an infant’s breath.
We cannot help writing about it, welding it into our art, because it is us, and we are it. It’s the thing we were born to bear witness to, when we are awake to do so.