The Artist and His Material

G. J. Lindemans

Life, it is said, is an art and human beings should mold their lives as an artist creates a picture or a sculpture. Yet not everyone who manipulates a brush is a painter, and therefore many a canvas brushed with paint cannot by any stretch be called a work of art. What is more, not every artist is a genius, so not every painting is a masterpiece. One may be born with talent, but must then go through the necessary self-discipline to develop the strength to surmount the obstacles along his way. In addition, only suffering will temper his nature with the tenderness of feeling which will enable him to express his deepest moods.

Yet all this, though of the greatest import, is not enough to empower one to create a work of art. The artist must know thoroughly the nature of the material in which he works, and the possibilities of any medium are limited. They may favor his intentions as well as obstruct them, but he can never ignore the typical properties inherent in canvas, wood, or clay without exposing his own artistic shortcomings. A sculptor may choose sandalwood or oak in which to carve a statue. After having visualized his creation, he chooses this type of wood because he realizes that no other kind is so ideally suited to his purpose; but his decision rules out any chance to use the beauties concealed in, say, marble or bronze. By preferring the properties of wood he has accepted its limitations and even its imperfections: in some places it may be of a lighter color than in others, its hardness will vary, maybe its fibers follow an undular course all of which will influence the way in which he must work, as well as the final result.

Yet if he is an accomplished artist, he does not become the slave of his material but, as a master of his craft, consciously transmutes flaws into factors which enhance rather than detract from the beauty of his creation. He does not use artificial means to conceal imperfections which would only betray his inefficient artisanship. On the contrary, he reaches near-perfection by compelling them to fulfill a creative function. By recognizing the values inherent in limitations he can use them for a divine purpose in the field in which he is master.

In the art of living the above principles can be applied: life is the milieu in which each person has to create his own individual masterpiece. We have to admit that many a life is handled as though it were a stick to be cast aside. A few may carve it into an admirable thing of beauty, or it can be shaped into every imaginable thing between these extremes. It all depends on the one to whom it is given to work upon. If he can enjoy its qualities and pour out his life blood with enthusiasm if necessary, while toiling with its most refractory parts, he will be amply rewarded; but if he curses its knots, they will dull his instruments and defy his endeavors.

Obviously in the art of life only a few become accomplished; many only partially succeed, while some apparently fail. Why? The crucial point is whether we are or are not free agents in carving out our lives. We cannot escape recognizing that as soon as someone is born he can no longer change the circumstances which receive him. Is this mere fate or the inscrutable will of God? An absolute beginning with no heritage of past experience, or a renewed call to duty for the pilgrim soul? The ancient concept of reincarnation suggests a master-key, for it shows the human soul as irresistibly drawn to and choosing the opportunities and faculties which will enable it to fulfill its true calling and to acquire ever higher capabilities. It is with us all precisely as with the artist, who is drawn to his study and chooses his tools and materials, accepting and utilizing them as he finds them, knowing that they are as they should be and that it is up to him to make the best of them.

(From Sunrise magazine, December 2005/January 2006; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)

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