morality

No Compromise by Chris Hall

Some good advice, maybe.

Some good advice, maybe.

I admit, I can be a bit thorny concerning my art, but for good reason.  And for all my life's difficulties, I can honestly say that because I've never compromised, I have absolutely no regrets to speak of.

Lately I have been asked quite a bit about compromising my art.  I can not compromise.  Today I saw an artist with a commissioned piece, completed for the owner of the PetSmart company.  It was an airbrushed piece on canvas of the PetSmart owner's fancy vintage car in front of a picturesque theater with a marquee that read, “It's a Wonderful Life.”  Total Hollywood glam.  Perhaps it is a “Wonderful Life” for the PetSmart owner, but if a “Wonderful Life” is defined by how many fancy vintage cars you can own and have portraits of, this is beyond many people's reach.  The artwork, while high quality and technically proficient, was a failure in my estimation.  It may have successfully stoked the ego of the PetSmart owner, but it has no real application beyond that.  When it comes to my art, I have no interest in giving people what they want.  People already get too much of what they want.  My concern in my art is for providing the world with what it needs.  Granted, sometimes the two overlap, but often times it does not.  

Of course it would be nice for me to make a living from my art, but not ever at the cost of my integrity or my soul.  Some have suggested to me that I should hide away my more provocative works from potential buyers who may be too sensitive to appreciate what I am trying to do . . . as if my work is something to be embarrassed about.  If someone is embarrassed by my work, that speaks more to their state of mind, their Puritan prejudices, than to my perceived depravity.  In this case, art is an illustration, not an act.  Drawing a crime is one thing.  Committing a crime is another.  There is a profound difference.  And besides, many of the things that I illustrate that may be considered a crime by the morality police, I argue in the contrary anyways.  I have nothing to be ashamed of.  I refuse to be made to feel embarrassed by my own work.  Perhaps they should spend more time looking at my work and learn . . . what I offer is nothing to be embarrassed about.  

But the world's needs are one thing; I also have my own needs, which are satisfied by making art.  Art is a guilty pleasure sometimes.  It can be a drug with withdrawal symptoms.  It is something necessary for me.  If I did not have art, live, breathe, think about art constantly, I suspect I would be an arsonist, a radical terrorist maybe.  Everyone benefits, whether they know it or not, whether they like my art or not, by my art practice.

Working Without a Sense of Shame by Chris Hall

Hermes, the trickster, patron god of artists

Hermes, the trickster, patron god of artists

There is this notion that artists work without a sense of shame, both in their art and in their life.  Perhaps this is true, and this, more or less, with each individual artist.  To be brazen and bold, to speak the truth, or to show things that many people would rather not see, but perhaps should  . . . if this is what it means to make art without a sense of shame, then I would argue that to live life or make art with an eye to decorum, tradition, and convention speaks of certain cowardice.  The artist should never be afraid to call a spade a spade and announce that the Emperor has no clothes.  In this world where we are continually pressured to toe the line and conform, the artist becomes both trickster and hero, breaking the status quo and into a new realm of freedom.  I am reminded of Hermes the trickster god of Greek Mythology and his slaying of Argus Panoptes, the giant with a hundred eyes.  “Panoptes” means “all seeing,” and Argus always saw, everything.  When some eyes would sleep, there would always be others awake.  Lewis Hyde tells us that in this myth, Argus symbolizes shame, his multitude of eyes, always open, are the eyes of the community, forever prying into everyone’s business, waiting to catch us in acts of shame.  The shame Argus was tasked to discover was Zeus’ infidelity with Io.  Hermes plays his lyre and sings stories until one by one each of Argus’ eyes close in sleep.  Hermes then beheads Argus.  Metaphorically, Hermes uses art to slay shame.

Hermes slaying Argus Panoptes, the symbol of shame.

Hermes slaying Argus Panoptes, the symbol of shame.

How does shame function in our society?  What purpose does it serve?  At it’s best shame functions as a check against the temptation to perform unethical acts.  At its worst it functions as a form of censorship and a denial of liberties.  They are two sides of the same coin.  Ethics and morality differ greatly between different societies, within a single society, and among individuals. There is hardly a consensus, and even within one person, the dividing lines between what is good and what is bad are not exactly well defined.   There is no black and white, as such, only zones of ambiguity, shades of gray, and contradiction among shifting sands.  Ethics are not static, but are in constant flux.  What may be wrong at one time may be what is right at another.  There are times when it is necessary for the individual, either for one’s self or for the perceived greater good, to break with moral and ethical hypocrisy, and this is one of the tasks artists perform.  It isn’t always easy, when we are socialized to behave a certain way . . . shame has a deeper grip on our subconscious than we would like to at first acknowledge.  When speaking against a collective who insist that the world is flat, you are at first perceived as being crazy.  Society must protect itself; its paranoid fear that when it breaks down, how helpless we are as individuals in savage nature.  As individuals, too, we are not completely liberated.  Even the most free of people will have a secret shame, a shame which they can only hint at.  But revolution, be it personal or societal, must be given its due, and truth will out when the right time comes.  The great thinkers and artists of our world will shine the light reason on those dark forbidden corners and banish shame from back to where it belongs. 

I don't know what Hermes is doing here, but I'm almost certain is something cool.

I don't know what Hermes is doing here, but I'm almost certain is something cool.

Hermes the trickster also has parallels to the artist in that both are notorious thieves.   Hermes steals 50 head of cattle from Apollo and through a series of clever subterfuges, attempts to cover his tracks.  In the case of artists, inspiration sometimes does come out of thin air, but more often than not, it also comes from other terrestrial and cultural sources.  You can read more about the artist theft in the next blog entry, The Art of Stealing.