Thursday, February 19, 2009


by Billy Marshall Stoneking

(NOTE: This is the text of the speech I gave at the 1st Fadjr of International Art at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Tehran, Iran. 5th February, 2009)

It has been said “whoever is loved is beautiful…

but it does not necessarily follow that whoever is beautiful is loved.

Beauty is a part of lovableness. But the root principle is Love.”

So just for the moment, let us assume that every act of artistic creation, insofar as it keeps faith with Beauty and with Truth, is an act of love.

By that I mean an act of transcendence, conducted by an inspired faith and a self-forgetfulness in which time and space are all but obliterated, the sort of experience Mohammad Iqbal captures so poignantly when he writes:

Leaving the moon and the sun behind
I reached the presence of God, and said,
“Not a single atom in Your world
Is an intimate of mine.
The world has no heart, but I,
A handful of dust, am all heart.
It’s a nice garden, but not worthy of my song.”

A work of art is a meditation on what is loveable and, in the devotion of the artist to the work, is akin to prayer, with resonances that are clearly spiritual and thoroughly revolutionary.

In the guise of a screenwriting lecturer, I often refer to cinema, strange as it may seem, as “the art of the invisible” – for it has always seemed to me that its power resides not so much in what it shows but in what it suggests.

I suppose it’s rather ironic given the fact that I’ve been invited to address a gathering of scholars and artists working in the field of visual arts.

Let me be clear - in speaking of the “art of the invisible” I in no way wish to imply that images are unimportant or irrelevant.

Far from it.

All of us understand that in opening ourselves to a profound painting or an extraordinary sculpture, we do not merely stare at their most obvious, formal aspects, but are conducted into the heart of each, to the source of the energy that lies within or behind their physical manifestation.

In one of his most famous stories, Rumi tells us of the great love that Majnūn had for Lailā, who though not a beauty, was thoroughly cherished.

“There are many girls much more beautiful than her,” he would hear others whisper. But to him… she was like a cup.

“‘If I had a golden beaker,’ he would explain, ‘studded with precious stones, and in the beaker there were vinegar or something else other than wine, of what use would it be?’

“An old broken gourd in which there is wine was better in his eyes than a hundred goblets filled with vinegar.”

When the jazz musician, Duke Ellington, was asked for his definition of jazz - that most American of all art forms - he replied, “It’s what you leave out!”

The potency of any work of art – providing it is a work of love - does not reside exclusively in what it presents, but in what it provokes and inspires, what it challenges us to imagine, and to feel.

Artists, like the ancient alchemists, transform the raw material of nature into valuable essences by which the urgencies of instinct, habit, and appetite might be subdued and transmuted into a glimpse of the eternal.
Being the agents of both change AND conservation, the artist’s quest is to draw out that which is hidden, to make present what is past, to create – through the work AN EXPERIENCE that is the very essence of the miracle of life.

Love conserves everything that is worth conserving, whilst illuminating and overturning the ignorance and injustice that promotes and sustains every deception.
Not love in the ordinary, conventional sense. Not romantic feelings or sentiments of lost times, not love of country, or love of any particular thing – but HEART – the true heart – resonant, inward, faithful, and infinite.

The artist’s quest is to gain HEART, and to build it in others.

But to gain HEART is to risk everything.

In striving towards this objective, the artist develops and, by the grace of God, is possessed of, a facility for seeing what is not yet visible…
A work of art is the bringing to perception of those invisible powers – not Art for Art’s sake, but Art for Life’s sake. The work is the artist’s reply to the unseen, the unheard. By virtue of the artist’s HEART and the actions that emanate from it, audiences are spirited to vantage points from which they, too, might experience the same kind and quality of discoveries that the artist has made.

When Picasso says: “Painting is bigger than me; I do what it tells me to do”, he acknowledges the central creative relationship known to anyone who is an artist.

He also calls our attention to the notion that every work of art – or work of love - takes a hand in its own becoming.

The idea that art creates us as much as we create it, applies equally to artists and audiences.

When a young writer turns up at my office, complaining that they’ve written the first ten or twelve pages of a 100-page screenplay and that they don’t know what the story is about, I congratulate them.

Well done!, I say. You don’t need to know what it’s about, otherwise you might interfere with it.

Go on the journey! Live the horror! Experience the four great anxieties of the soul! Be surprised! Confront the wall that is yourself!!!

The reason you write is to find out WHY you are writing!

Art proceeds by faith; it has no blind axes to grind, nor does it indulge in the three STUPIDITIES – or as Cleanth Brooks characterised them – the Three False Muses:

PROPAGANDA (which pleads, sometimes unscrupulously, for a special cause or issue at the expense of the total truth);

SENTIMENTALITY (which works up emotional responses unwarranted by, and in excess of, the occasion); and

PORNOGRAPHY (which focuses upon one powerful human drive at the expense of the total human personality).

Art is the absence of stupidity.

It never explains.

The initiation of the artist into the “withness of the Universe” is provoked and mediated by an active participation in FOUR PRIMARY RELATIONSHIPS essential to the transformation of that person who – in Picasso’s words – “does what the painting tells (me) to do”. The artist’s participation in these relationships constitutes a creative dialogic instrumental to the transformation of the artist into a channel through which the unseen and unheard enter the phenomenal world.

The fundamental relationship is the one that the artist has with THE WORK.

Then there is the artist’s relationship with AUDIENCE, and the artist’s relationship with his or her TRIBE or TRIBES. And finally, there is the artist’s relationship with that most wily, problematical and imaginative work of all – which is THE ARTIST himself, or herself!

Let us consider each of these in more detail.

Knowledge is often cited as the conventional remedy for ignorance, prejudice, superstition and fear, but in the case of creativity, knowledge can only take you so far.

Matters of perspective, colour theory, line, tone and composition, no matter how well they are understood, will not necessarily inspire or sustain the depth of insight and courage necessary to build HEART, to overcome the fears or endure the terror of what stares back when one peers into the face of the angel, Creation.

Likewise, an encyclopaedic knowledge of literary and artistic periods, precursors and methodologies, rather than breaking down the prejudices and habits of thought that undermine one’s being OPEN to what one beholds, very often only legitimise and reinforce the conditioning and misplaced concreteness that stands between the aspiring artist and the work that is trying to get itself born.

Artistic expression, unmediated by these four primary relationships, is invariably shackled to petty considerations of taste, fashion, decorum and the arid long-winded – albeit learned – discourse that passes as wisdom whilst promoting and celebrating work that is all-too-often grounded in the artist’s conscious and unconscious insecurities and his or her need to comply with a set of presupposed assumptions and expectations.

This approach is hardly conducive to promoting the sort of interactions one normally associates with genuinely creative relationships.

To avoid the staleness, predictability and cliché this kind of non-relationship breeds, the artist must engage with the work in such a way that he or she allows IT to contribute something.

In being open and available to the inner life of a work of art, the artist must “become undone”.

The tribal Aboriginal painters of Central Australia, whose dot paintings gained a worldwide audience thirty years ago, had a remarkable understanding of the usefulness of “getting undone”. The act of forgetting oneself, of literally getting out of the way of the life of the painting, is fundamental not only to the act of creativity but also to its appreciation. And for the desert painters, the dots were the way they did it.

By applying one dot, after another dot, after another, dot after dot after dot, until the canvas was full of dots, the Aboriginal artist fell into a trance by which he went out of his body and inhabited the sacred site that the painting became.
The painting was never a representation of place – but the embodiment of place, and was visited by the artist in spirit as a direct result of the focused application of, and meditation upon, the ritualistic placing of dots.

To experience this kind of self-forgetfulness in the act of creation is to experience JOY.

“He who understands my music,” Beethoven once said, “can never know sorrow again.”

The HOLY communion of artist and artwork – that nexus of unadulterated clarity – requires an ACT OF BEING by both the artist and the work, and for the artist involves both a SACRIFICE and a RISK.

The sacrifice is the continuous acknowledgement in action that every genuine act of creation entails a letting go, a stripping away of everything by which the artist identifies himself or herself as separate from the work. Everything that is superfluous to the coming-into-being of the Form that seeks to birth itself through the artist requires the sacrifice of self, the loosening of the grip of ego and all that it craves. The fullest expression of this is the transformation of the artist into a MEDIUM, which is the affirmation of a larger SELF that appears when the personal self disappears into or is overwhelmed by the work.

One must “kill one’s babies” as the saying goes. The ego being the biggest baby of all!

And the risk? In the act of creation, I become the work and the work becomes me. I am responsible to it, and it is responsible to me. One gives oneself over to it; and as I serve it, it serves. The risk is: if I do not serve it aright it is broken, or it breaks me. There is a price to pay for everything we discover. As the old Spanish proverb says: “Take what you like, and pay for it.”

“To produce is to draw forth; to invent is to find; to shape is to discover.”

The artistic vision is, as I have suggested, a vision of inclusiveness and sharing, which necessitates a shift in the artist’s psychical distance to the work being found. This shift requires a perspective that is grounded not only in the artist’s relationship with the work, but also in the artist’s relationship with his or her audience.

The audience of which I speak, that is useful to the artist, is never a characterless crowd but a person – someone the artist knows, someone with whom he or she has a close enough relationship so as to make it possible for the artist to imaginatively view the work from the perspective of that CHARACTER.

Preferably it should be someone who does not share the vision of the artist, but who is, nevertheless, susceptible to those special resonances that the artist and the work find in each other.

The question is: Who is the person to whom the work in addressed?

Who is it that I want to move and why do I want to move them?

One must be careful who one chooses. Mothers are not always the best choice, nor are husbands and wives, generally. What is important is that the artist chooses someone that he or she cares about, who, at the same time is an adversary, someone who is inclined to be critical of the work.

In seeking a dramatic and vivid creative relationship with one’s audience, the artist seeks to view the work not from his or her own perspective but as it is imaginable from the perspective of a known OTHER.

Just as the artist is never fully aware of the energies and meanings at play within the evolving work of art, so too is one’s audience often hidden from view. Questions like “who is it for?” “what effect will it produce?” and “why is it needed?” are critical to the creative odyssey to forge some kind of productive relationship with audience.

However, these must never be entertained simply as academic questions or as an intellectual exercise. In enacting the creative transformation from maker to medium, the artist must BECOME that audience, at least imaginatively. The act is analogous to creating a character – a dramatic character; that is, one that opposes the artist’s expectations and plans. For the audience that one imagines serves the artist best when he or she is an adversary. The tension resulting from this imaginative battle of will stimulates fresh insights into the way the work behaves in the presence of someone who does not share the same psychical distance to the work as the artist.

And just as there is someone to whom we are speaking when we create, so too is there someone who is speaking through us, or someone for whom we are speaking.
I refer to TRIBE.

Tribe is ontological. To be is to be part of a tribe.

The artist/tribe relationship affirms the artist’s responsibility to his or her origins.

Through an imaginative interaction with one’s tribe or tribes, the artist connects with the work in the context of something larger and more encompassing than the artist’s (or the audience’s) individual ego, and its drive to express itself.

If one wanted to be Freudian about it, one could say that the artist/tribe relationship is the super-ego of the creative process – for it evokes the conscience that is embedded in the psyche of the creative act.

Having said this, and given the complexity of the modern world, it’s not surprising that an artist may be psychologically or spiritually crippled or fragmented by “the second-handedness of the learned world” , and an array of seemingly incompatible tribal associations.

When I began to think about where my own stories and poems were coming from, I was unable to ignore the years I spent in the desert, sitting around campfires, listening to Pintupi elders like “Nosepeg” Tjupurrula and Tutama Tjapangarti chanting the stories of the Dreamtime.

Caught up in the journeys of the Ancestors (Tingarri), the entire world became a living drama. Those trees over there weren’t merely trees; they were the digging sticks left by the Namputakatjarra women. And this beside this creek bed, this is where the honey-ant men emerged from the earth as they travelled east towards the rocky outcrop at Warumpi.

“Whitefellas” call these “dreamtime stories”, but the anarngu of the Western Desert area of Australia, call them tjukurrpa – the Pintupi word for “creation” – that vast and timeless “now” of transformative altercations that is happening all around us, all the time - that invisible present that we might be able to perceive at any moment if only we could find a way of escaping from the past into which we have absconded and where we go on huddling in the name of safety, economy and power.

I remember a night in the early 1980s when Tutama and myself and a half a dozen other old Pintupi men sat together round a small campfire near Tjukula, an important Tingarri site way out on the Western Australia/Northern Territory border. The place is associated with a bush-cat man who had taken it upon himself to save a big mob of people from an evil spirit who desired to kill them all. Proper cheeky bugger, that one!

Tutama and the others had regaled me with stories about the giant women at Pinari, and Warnampi, the giant rainbow serpent that made its home at the top of Uluru. It went on most of the night. Then Tjampitjinpa – one of the old men – gazed up at the starry sky, employing it like some celestial visual aid, and began telling the tale of the Seven Sisters.

The others leaned forward, listening as if it was the first time they had heard the story, though I knew from their age that they must have heard it countless times around an infinity of fires.

When the story came to an end, Tutama turned to me and, pointing towards the heavens, asked: “What’s the whitefella story for that mob?”

Not knowing the Greek or Roman myths well enough, I told him and the others about the “speed of light”. You see that star, I said – its light is coming towards us at 186,000 miles per second. That star might have blown up and disappeared thousands of years ago, but its light is still coming towards us!

The old men’s eyes widened in disbelief. It was the kind of thing they’d come to expect from a whitefella. Whitefellas will tell you almost anything!

Then I realised – what I was telling them was no more true or false than what they had told me. It all depended on what the story was for.

Two different tribes, with two different agendas were talking to one another around a campfire. And the veracity of what they said depended entirely on understanding the purpose of each story. If one was motivated to put a human being on the moon, my story might be more relevant, but if one was seeking kinship with the cosmos, theirs may have been closer to the mark.

As artists embedded in relationships with our tribes, we are custodians of a “dreaming” that we are obliged to attend to and work with and birth, in order to share the dream of our tribe with the tribes of others.

Art-as-myth, as symbol, as communion with Nature, as ritual, as worship, as the embodiment of our most profound values, has always been connected to these sources of Being that reside deep within each one of us – at the source from which all artists draw a common inspiration.

We cannot enter the HOLY unless we do so with our entire Being. And Being is a matter of essence, of source, of origin. If the work is allowed its Being, then it will speak to us from that Being, and if our reply is to be true, we must speak to it from ours, both as artist and audience.

Where the work’s origins intersect with the artist’s origins, it produces that extraordinary and timeless freshness we so clumsily refer to as ORIGIN-ALITY.

The artist-tribe relationship both affirms and negates the artist’s identity and individuality.

In addressing the question: by what authority do I make this painting, or this poem, or sculpture or story, the artist-as-medium works with the authority of his or her tribe, thus awakening the sense of connectedness that exists between the artist and his or her origins.

As this bond grows stronger the artist is likely to eschew every inclination to inflict his or her personal and/or momentary enthusiasms and anxieties onto either the work or the audience.

The artist-tribe relationship takes seriously the notion of revelation. Indeed, it might be said that every work of art is – in the process of finding it – a manifestation of that part of the artist’s Being that is yet to be discovered.

To operate as a medium is not so much a matter of what the artist does, as what the artist doesn’t do, as in the Chinese idea of wu-wei (non-action), a concept that denotes effortlessness, spontaneity, or what Chuang Tzu refers to as “flowing”.

Every well-found work of art flows.

To let be. To become “empty”, unobtrusive, so that the work can become what it is, and always has been in eternity, requires great courage and faith.

The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, expressed this vision in a wonderful poem, called “The Man Watching”. He writes:

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler's sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

In connecting with tribe, the artist gains an important insight into the mediumistic and mystical experience that IS Art – and the revelation that Art functions not only as something that one gives to an audience, but as something that one receives from one’s tribe or clan.

The work, the audience and the tribe, though they may manifest materially as tangible, describable entities, are nevertheless, in their discourses with the artist, transformed into “divine fictions” whose relationship with the artist creates imaginative vantage points of perspectives from which the artist is able to apprehend the work at varying psychical distances.

Which brings us to that last and, at least to most of us who live in the West, that most challenging and frightening relationship of all – the artist’s relationship with himself.

The artist’s belief that he or she controls the creative process, that the power to create is vested in the intellectual, linguistic and physical prowess of the artist, is a complete fiction. The artist is no more real or unreal than the work itself, or its audience, or the tribe whose origins connect the imagined artist to the imagined work.

The belief that the artist occupies some special, favoured place at the top of Art’s Great Chain of Being is the great, unquestioned assumption that nourishes the vast imperialism of mediocrity.

Opposing this is the evolving and eternal quest of the MEDIUM to attain to that invisibility that IS the mystery of Life itself. To allow oneself to be transformed into a pure creative act, which is by definition an act of Love. That is art, not as self-expression, but as self-transformation…

What it transforms is our way of being with what is beautiful; what it transforms is our way of communing with one another; what it transforms is our relationship with our audience, and our relationship with our tribe. What it transforms is our way of being with ourselves.

I have always said that all men and women are brothers and sisters in a story well told. The same applies, whether it is a story. a poem, a painting, a sculpture or a piece of music.

It’s a sad fact about our culture, W.H. Auden once said, that a poet can
earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.

So let me end with one of my own poems, that manages to express everything I have said so much more succinctly…

(a poem of Ayer’s Rock)

Old Tjupurrula squeezes my arm
and puckers his lips, pointing -
Pintupi-style - toward the television set;
eyes fastened on the screen,
on dissolves of that sandstone monolith:
a montage of Uluru awash with rain;
water cascading, crashing down -
blackening the Rock...

Leaning close, he whispers:
“The rainbow -
the rainbow comes from the earth
and returns to the earth.”

It is a snake, he says,
a giant snake
with a long beard and sharp teeth.
It lives in caves under the rock hole
at the top of Uluru.

“It has no need of men or women.
No Dreamings, no ceremonies,”
he says.
It was here before Creation Times,
and has never changed its form.
“Proper cheeky one, Snake,
very dangerous;
when it is angry, the land is dry.
People drink sand.”

No one is happy for it;
No one is sad for it.
It has no need of custodians
(“Kurtangulu, nothing.”)
It is like that other one -
the serpent in the Garden.

It turns knowledge into fear,
and fear into knowledge.

But, with the right fear
you can protect yourself.
Be mindful of the Snake.
Take time to look, look again -
feel the land through your feet;
the Snake will not harm those
who show the proper respect.
Those who rush in must be strangers.

“It will attack strangers.”

The bodies of the Ancestors -
the ones killed by the Snake -
cover the earth.
“Everywhere, everywhere!”

But who can find them?
Who can name them?

If you would know this country,
you must know its stories...

“In early days, yiriti,”
Tjupurrula says,
“bush people carried the Song.
They carried it in drought times
through dry country,
travelling at night.
Once, when I was wiyai,
a little boy, we came -
Mummy, Father, two sisters -
from our own country to the Rock,
to Uluru, following the track
of the Old Ones...
...silently, looking, looking,
coming to the Mother Place,
to the borning country of every ocean.
“People travelled here
when the land filled up
with children who had no memory of rain.
From Putardi, Triinya and Karli Karru;

from Muruntji, Atila and Wimparraku,
they came...
All the families:
some from the north,
some from the south,
some east, some west...

Tribes didn’t matter.
They said ‘hello’;
they talked quietly;
they shared meat, kuka.
they looked at the rainless sky.

“Tjila, dry; Ilpili, dry;
Pangkupirri, dry. Everywhere, dry!
Payback was forget about;
no argument, no eye.
Just men and women coming from forever.
Women must help, too!
Women and men, coming to Uluru...

“With one, special Song, they knew,
they had the power to sing the Snake.
They could make him remember them;
they could change his mind.”

The spell of the Tongue:
a hundred hundred round the Rock,
crying out for water,
cracking the voice,
mimicking thunder, chanting:
“Kapi! Kapi! Kapi!”

Hands gesturing the air
night and day, circling,
until the voices became one voice
rising, falling...
a Song-chant for water,
becoming sure of itself.

“Wind might be hot.

Sky might be blue. Country all about -

Never mind.
We didn’t look for cloud;
we didn’t listen for thunder -
we had the power to sing the Snake;
to wake it, to move it,
curled in the earth;
to make it sorry...”

And when the Snake stirred
(“if the singing was strong and true”),
it would push the water out
from its rock hole on top -
from that danger place, the place where
every river in the world begins
and ends.

“And like blood,
it would flow down, fall down,
alatji, everywhere, every side...
just like on TV:
Kapi! Kapi! Kapi!
for all the thirsty people
for all us perishin’ mob.”


“No. Not rain,” he says. “Water
from inside, where the Snake lives.
Inside the stone.”

“You saw all this, I asked;
water bubbling up out of dry rock?”

“Course,” he says;
“in early days, olden times;
you know,
before the whitefellas came,
when bush people had the power
to sing the Snake.
Water everywhere -
all the way, everyway
no worries,
from the Rock, and
fall down, fall down
fall down...

without clouds… without rain!”

Note: Uluru is the Aboriginal name for Ayers Rock.

(LEFT) Billy Marshall Stoneking (r) with his friend & host, the Iranian artist, Nasser Palangi, in Isfahan, Iran (February, 2009)