an email conversation with a fellow artist has been making me think about when an image has to be ‘broken’ in order to move forward… when a painting is too immediately pleasing, it rarely satisfies longterm. and sometimes the artist sees that the prettiness makes it partial, that truth is rarely pretty and pretty is never the whole story.

that is part of why i believe fine art should be considered non-verbal philosophy: it’s not about making pleasing objects, it’s about inviting people to look again, first at the piece, then at their life and the world around them.

lots of people complain art is elitist, outside the mainstream, compared to, say, soap operas – but it always has been. the work people think of as so safe – van gogh, monet, rembrandt, klimt, virtually any old master and certainly most work since 1850 THAT HAS LASTED was all considered ugly, not worth buying/ supporting (most art was sponsored by church or court) and lots of it was excluded from juried exhibitions. i could be really naughty and argue that soap operas are elitist because they have a huge budget for productions that are rarely shown for more than a month, even on ‘anytime’ viewing, but i’ll stick to one hot potato at a time!

so, think about van gogh,  now considered suitable for fudge boxes and cheap calendars, but who never sold a single painting in his lifetime. think about how he painted a pair of broken down shoes and a flock of crows spoiling a wheat field with their ominous shadows. i find that particular painting so sad…having held my husband’s hand as he struggled with terrible depressive mood swings after manic episodes, i can see why van gogh killed himself so soon afterwards. my husband died of a heart attack, but even with the anti-psychotics and anti-depressants available nowadays, people still kill themselves when the pain is too much. anyway, those shoes were considered laughable at the time. why show a pair of shoes in all the inglorious detail of  cracked leather and flapping soles and broken down heels, shoes that have been worn by many people as they went down the social scale? because they have lived many lives and can tell us about poverty and thrift and want and need?  because they carry truth, are they now beautiful?  because  the painting holds a truth, is it now beautiful?

truth is beauty, beauty truth, said the poet, but we visual artists have a bone to pick with him! truth is beautiful and will set you free, IF you recognise real beauty – a pair of blazing eyes above a scarred face,or a bruised and broken jaw, a woman with lines and folds from carrying children in and on her body, a man with one leg in a wheelchair sprint, a child going to school and facing up to bullies, an old woman hugging a tree so the loggers cannot murder it, a youth rescuing birds from oil slicks, a mother in a literacy class in india shaping her first words as she breaks free of dalit/lowest caste rules to ensure her children get a better deal, a transgendered man cradling the newborn baby born from his body with tears in his eyes…

beauty is spirit and passion, with a story to tell. the bland princesses of hollywood films (the characters we assign to actresses and models, regardless of their real strengths) and the gaunt vampires of the fashion industry and women’s magazines are not blank canvasses, no one is too young to have a story, but they are BLANKED OUT canvasses.

i have  friends i think of as the  graces, because they are young (early to mid 20s), active and popular, but they are beautiful because they care passionately about making the world a better place in some way. one is a permaculture gardener and activist, one works on the legalities of protecting indigenous peoples and unspoiled landscapes from the greed of consumerism, even consumerism in the green mask of biomass fuel, a third is writing an application for a masters in photography and street culture/ ethnography informed by her streetplay work, another is starting her visual arts degree in september while caring for a mother in chronic pain, one is planning a fashion business while coping with chronic fatigue…yes, they are also pleasing to look at, but they bring grace to the world, and that is what makes them beautiful.

i also have friends closer to my age or much older (40 – 70), and including me, one has survived her son’s suicide, six have survived  abuse/attack and/ or violent relationships, one taking her daughter but having to leave her son behind, one has just had more lumps removed from her face and jaw, one has made beautiful, meaningful films and land art, partly about her experience of bi-polar affective disorder, two of us have been in very demanding relationships with men with bi-polar, one makes amazing photographic art about abuse and survival issues, one raises awareness through deeply thoughtful writing and songwriting, in particular i’m thinking of the genderqueer/ transgendered issues, one heals through shamanic connection with plants, one creates stimulating activities 5 days a week for elders in residential care, one raised awareness and created community activities for survivors of the mental health system, two were social workers, i was a craft therapist and painted, but now make assemblages, and this blog!

we are beautiful, but none of us are pretty. we are too interesting to be that bland! some of us are scarred, either on the inside or out, some are fit and healthy, some not, but we all bring grace to the world, and that is what makes us beautiful, to those with eyes to see. we are also pretty scary when we get going! we have all survived people trying to put us down or shut us up, we have all refused to be silenced, most of us experienced being called ugly because we showed our empowerment and particularly when we use/d it to prevent injustice to others.

that’s why pretty, and the bland beauty of the media is so dangerous, it silences women in particular, because very few of those ‘beautiful’ women speak up : honorable exceptions include susan sarandon, meryl streep, angelina jolie, but aung san suu kyi and michelle obama seem to be seen as too principled to be beautiful, and most of the women speaking up are compared unfavourably to the silenced, blanked out canvasses.

and at last i circle back to my point (hope most of you are still with me! i know i lost the beautiful dyslexic, sorry sweets!) which is the role of artists. we should be outside the establishment, we should have clearer eyes than our contemporary society. our work is to show up the gaps, to ask the tricky questions, to question ourselves about why it is hard to to ‘break’ prettiness to create beauty, to show up at the canvas and keep filling it in. because the artist in the email IS opening herself up, she will be painting truer pictures. her painting may become ugly as it becomes beautiful, but, ugly or not, the truth that we need will set us free.

and THAT is beautiful.