(Note: You will find a video version of this article here.)
I grew up completely ignorant about art.
I knew art existed, of course. I knew that someone painted the pretty pictures that we stuck on our walls as decorations. I even knew there were “serious” artists out there who created work that they claimed had meaning. I thought they were just pretentious charlatans.
Musical artists? They were just making commercial entertainment. Filmmakers and actors? They were just entertainers, too. And as for sculptors, I didn’t quite understand why anybody would care. It was just more decoration for those with money to waste.
The home and subculture in which I grew up was aggressively steeped in pragmatism and logic, not in meaning and mystical connections to the human spirit. At different times, I wanted to be an engineer, a lawyer and a businessman. Everything was pragmatic. Even my understanding of my Christian faith was firmly rooted in overly rational systematic theology, not in spiritual experience.
It’s taken decades, but art has slowly changed who I am. This spectacular 1936 painting by René Magritte, above, which is called “Clairvoyance,” represents my current understanding of art.
In this painting, Magritte brilliantly expressed the bold notion that a good artist shows us where we’re going before the rest of us can see it.
It wasn’t until I was 29 years old that I started the slow transformation that have led me to my current understanding of myself and my current understanding of art. I’ve written before about how I had about a year when I was in deep depression about what I was going to do with my life next — and I came to the shocking and uncomfortable conclusion that I’m an artist. Even though my mind fought against the idea, something in my heart knew that’s who I really am. (I wrote about that experience about 12 years ago.)
Because I had so little understanding of art or genuine creativity, it’s taken me years of wandering to get to the place I am now. And even now, I’m still struggling to figure out how to make the kind of art I’ve always needed to make.
I had been a writer before that, but I’d been a journalist — the sort of writer who just writes the facts in a formulaic way. I’d been a photographer, but I’d been a news photographer, shooting pictures that were designed to illustrate news and sports for community newspapers.
It was years before I could write and direct my first short film. And even after that film was an unexpected success, it’s been many more years of struggle and self-doubt to muddle my way toward taking another step toward making the art I need to make.
It was only a few days ago that I discovered this René Magritte painting, but as soon as I found it, I realized that it crystalized everything I’d come to learn about art. As I looked at this, I knew that Magritte was saying something very bold, something that could even be seen as arrogant. He was saying, “I see something that’s going to be — something that doesn’t exist yet — and I show it to you before you can see it coming.”
As soon as I saw that, I knew that’s the way I saw myself. Call it bold or arrogant or crazy, that’s what it feels like to believe you have insight into real meaning of the world — meaning that you desperately need to share.
For years now, I’ve been taking baby steps toward becoming an artist. I’ve tried to be bold enough to share my insights with a world that has no interest in hearing them — and I’ve persisted with sharing my ideas even when it seemed that nobody was listening. I’ve persisted even when it seemed that my ideas changed and meandered the more I tried to nail them down.
It was when I was 29 years old when I first admitted to myself that I believed I was an artist. For all those years since, I’ve been struggling to understand what it means to be an artist and how I could fit myself into that role. And now I feel as though the late René Magritte has taught me.
I feel as though I see where our culture is going. I see sickness and dysfunction all around me. I think I have insights about how that can be changed. And I know that I feel compelled to express these ideas, like some wild-eyed Old Testament prophet who comes out of the desert to say to the people, “Repent!”
I have to express my ideas in art. I’m compelled to make the work that can deliver such a message. How? I don’t know exactly. Books? Films? Something else? I don’t know for certain. I just know that I see where we’re going. I believe I see what’s wrong and what has to change. And I believe I had to preach this message, whether I really want to or not.
So that’s what René Magritte has taught me this week. He’s taught me what all really good art is doing. And he’s taught me that I have to figure out how to do the same thing — even if I don’t quite know how and even if it seems terribly arrogant to try.
I have something to say. I just hope I can figure out how to make art that’s good enough to express my ideas. But if I’m able to make good art, it will change me and it might even change the world. So even though René Magritte has been dead since 1967, I’m thankful that his work still exists to teach me what art really is — and how I might become a real artist.