A Personal Note on Art and Compassion
by Enrique MartÃnez Celaya, Apr 10, 2007
Yesterday, after considering Self-Portrait During the Eye Disease I, a late painting of Edvard Munch, I walked to the Seven-Eleven near my studio. The air smelled of jasmine and laundry detergent and a sea breeze stirred the palm trees. The lady who works at the laundromat played with coins over a Formica table while talking to someone on a cell phone, a boy sat on the bench outside, his eyes fixed on the small screen of his Gameboy, and a few feet away from him a teenage girl with reddish hair looked through a celebrity magazine. As I walked back with my Super Big Gulp in my hand, my own disease of isolation cured for a moment by Munch, I noticed with comfort that I was the lady, the boy and the girl and there was no time to waste.
I have heard and read of many ways to expand our circle of emotional relevance and restore the dignity many of us seem to be losing despite—or because of—increased access to gadgets, status and entertainment. But the only ways that seem to work are those that entail compassion and commitment to personal sacrifice as well as awareness of universal responsibility; moral demands that are challenging and often impossible, especially without examples. Teachings are almost examples, but understanding teachings is not a substitute for seeing. In my own life I have sought order and clarity through science and philosophy, but only art actualized the bond between self and world and offered the possibility of compassion.
I recognize that the concept of compassion in the arts has acquired an antiquated quality, as if it belonged to the days when ecclesiastical commissions defined the role of art. Perhaps, this is why, instead of seeking compassion, the informed public visits contemporary art venues for the pleasures of fashion, social visibility, accumulation and self-importance; activities and strategies in which allusions to someone else are often opportunistic, ironic, or coded into abstractions.
It might be that the need for so much diversion and consensus reveals the extent of our loneliness, dissimulated or temporarily relieved by the jolt of novelty, the authority of intellectualism and/or the validation of profits—loneliness that gives rise to internal turmoil and, our denial notwithstanding, evinces our need for compassion, for feeling part of something larger.
For art to show us a way out of loneliness it must transcend jolts, authority and validation, and it must go beyond good intentions and illustrations of compassion. The truth of compassion in art only comes from—and in—the sublime and authentic work. The experience of the sublime—not the discourse—dissolves the illusion of isolation, leaving us open to the dignity of human nature. And the inherent authority of authenticity frees us from the enslavement of external confirmation, which in turn allows us to involve others, not as targets of our status anxiety, but as subjects of our love.
There are several approaches to the sublime and the authentic, some luminous, some dark, but they all arrive at the same end. Unlike a work of novelty or fashion, a sublime and authentic work offers the alternative of communion to loneliness, closing the separation not only between me and others, but also between me and myself, and me and the world. A sublime and authentic artwork—if we are prepared to engage it—reconnects us with the world and puts our attention in the present, away from banality, entertainment and insecurities.
About the Author
Martínez Celaya was born in Cuba in 1964 and raised in Spain and Puerto Rico. He initiated his formal training as an apprentice to a painter at the age of 12. He studied Applied & Engineering Physics at Cornell University and pursued a Ph.D in Quantum Electronics from the University of California, Berkeley, before leaving physics for art. He attended the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture and earned a Master of Fine Arts with the department's highest distinction from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Martínez Celaya taught as a tenured professor in the faculty of Pomona College and Claremont Graduate University, is a trustee of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center, and was honored as the second Presidential Professor in the history of the University of Nebraska.