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Center for Action and Contemplation

Unselfconscious Awareness

Friday, May 18, 2018

Art: Week 1

Unselfconscious Awareness
Friday, May 18, 2018

The power of imagination and art is at the level of soul, where we do not consciously know what is happening. Therefore, we cannot engineer it, do not need to understand it, nor can we fully stop its effects! If we “perfectly understand” how God is changing us, if we try to be too rational about it, we will only fight grace, try to personally steer the soul (dangerous!), and, of course, take argumentative sides.

God works best underground and in our unconscious, by rearranging our assumptions and presuppositions—frankly, when we are not in control. The work of grace and healing mostly happens “in secret” as Jesus himself seems to say (Matthew 6:1-13).

An artist friend, Barbara Coleman, writes of an insight she learned while painting with her young daughter:

Great art . . . needs technical expertise as well as unchecked creativity, passion, and expression. Great art seems to be created through a person. Somehow one’s ego, self-consciousness, and expectations must be released before the piece is completed. . . .

When my oldest daughter was three, she would sit and paint for long periods of time in my studio as I painted. I was thrilled with her work . . . and I told her so. I praised her extravagantly, hoping to encourage her. I would say, “Oh, you really are a great artist!” and things of that sort. As soon as I would begin this personal praise, . . . her work would become sloppy or careless or she’d just get up and leave. Clearly my praise was having an unintended and very undesirable effect on her. I was making her self-conscious and distracting her from her discoveries. She began to turn to me for praise and approval, and the possibility of self-doubt was introduced. . . . It didn’t take long to redirect her focus back to her work, once I stopped praising her and addressed my comments to what was on the page. Understanding and discovery are their own rewards.

Being unself-conscious and being willing to lose oneself in the work is vital for a child and an artist. . . . How can we free [ourselves] to learn and have the experience of creating art? As a parent and art teacher, I find that the more [we] can focus on the immediate artwork at hand, the more satisfying the experience becomes. By not emphasizing a product, and by focusing on process instead, the work becomes more successful as well. The more [we are] able to reach a state of awareness in which [our] self-consciousness disappears into the desire to participate and see what [we] are trying to express, the more the art [and, I would add, God] can reach [us]. [1]

[1] Barbara Coleman as quoted by Richard Rohr, Contemplation in Action (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2006), 145-148.

Image credit: Composition VIII (detail), Wassily Kandinsky, 1923, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The power of imagination and art is at the level of soul, where we do not consciously know what is happening. Therefore, we cannot engineer it, do not need to understand it, nor can we fully stop its effects! —Richard Rohr
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