Art as Participation in the Creation of the World.

(This was a talk given at St. Peter's, Lewes, Delaware, in their "Summer Spirituality Series" this year.)

August 27, 2015

“And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.”  Revelation to John the Divine, 21:5

The spiritual life, to which art belongs and of which she is one of the mightiest elements, is a complicated but definite and easily definable movement forwards and upwards. This movement is the movement of experience. It may take different forms, but it holds at bottom to the same inner thought and purpose.”  Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art.
What am I doing?

This is a meditation on participating with the Divine in making all things new. The shorthand for this is that Art is participation in the creation of the world, which means that you and I as artists are the divine creative energy made flesh, incarnate. This is of course a well known spiritual experience, one which is both empowering and potentially heretical in the extreme.
The basic idea is that in our participation in art we are participating in the remaking of the world, in the broadening of our world and our ability to connect to it, speak of it, live in it. Ancillary to this is that creativity in art is the work both of the artist, composer, musicians, painters, printers, cooks and so forth, AND the persons who listen, look, see, taste, and smell.  That is art is a participatory affair in which people of very different levels of artistic engagement create a new world, in which all things are made new, if only for a brief while.  In the process of making all things new we all have creative roles.
That being the case, what then of art as participation in creation, along with the creator of all, and the created, namely the world itself? What follows are some hints about the relation between the creator, the creative and the created.
A graphical rendition of the question

Note that I have placed Creator, Creative, and Created all in the same “sphere”, the world of actualized or realized “things.”  This is not about creation from nothing, but about creation from “stuff.”  It is all incarnational.
Biographical beginnings to what I have learned.
 I have been writing poetry for most of my life. Here is an early poem, from my mid teens – some sixty years ago:
“When I die,
the earth my bed,
I shall have acted once in life,
As if it were a retribution
For things unsaid.”

Not bad for a teenager… thoughts of death, of limitations, of overcoming those, of “getting even.” Just a touch of anger, a touch of hope. Good, maybe not great, but good.

My first efforts in writing poetry were related to two things: My seeming inability to speak clearly about, act definitively about, or even engage with out great awkwardness, in anything having to do with sexual feelings; and my distress at injustice and war making in the world.  I wrote essentially, about sex and politics, looking in both places for a new world, a new creation.  I still do.

More importantly, I discovered the world of music, musicians, artists, poets, street performers, shouting preachers, divine wackjobs… the workers making the new world. (It helped to be young in New Orleans.)  The thing is, it was not only contemporary poets, musicians and visual artists that were making this new world, it was also ancient artists as well, which made me believe that artists were “making all things new,” in part because you and I, so called “consumers” of art took it all in and informed our lives by that. So I began to answer the question, “When did you become an artist?” by saying, “as soon as I could reach into the words and pictures and experience new life in the making.” 

Observation I.  Participation in the arts by being present as receiver - seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, “getting”, gronking…. is itself participation in the creation of a new world.  Artistic endeavor then includes the appreciator as well as the maker, for it is art to experience the created as well as to create.  Creatives then include both artists and those who engage the art.


“A long time ago in China there were two friends, one who played the harp skillfully and one who listened skillfully. When the one played or sang about a mountain, the other would say: “I can see the mountain before us.” When the one played about water, the listener would exclaim “Here is the running stream!” But the listener fell sick and died. The first friend cut the strings of his harp and never played again. Since that time the cutting of harp strings has always been a sign of intimate friendship.” From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones,  collected by Paul Reps, Charles Tuttle Co, Rutland, Vermont.

I have been, if you will, an art consumer all my life. I have been engaged in presenting artistic “objects” – poems, songs, watercolors, prints – for most of my adult life.  I am convinced that Art, and my participation in it, make me (and you) creative partners with what we have come to think of as the Creator, and with the whole world, which we often think of as the created.

I agree with Marx: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”  But don’t hang that on the philosophers alone. Much of the reaction to art is to see it as something to be understood, and see it as a way of interpreting the world. But I believe the object of art is to make the world new – that is, to change it.

So dumb as a post (as teenagers often are) I think I did hit on something… the payback for “the unsaid” is to speak, write, paint, print, whatever… the new, and to experience the new in the work of others.

Now to the meat of the matter:  I’ve several propositions, growing from recent work as a printmaker, poet, and preacher (gasp, even that). They are pretty simple and many of you already know them to be true, or worse, know them to be limited. I am accompanying them with images and poems. That’s it. This is my defense of the notion that art is a means of changing the world (or at least my world), and my defense in saying that we are the incarnation of the divine when we do so.

A Creation Poem:

Grass And Stars

Longing to be fecund
in Spirit and in Truth,
the Source of everything
surged and boiled over.

Ideas poured out onto the grass
took form,
and began the long dance
towards the present,

giving us the wilds of the Amazon,
the silence of permafrost,
the cities of the lost past
and more by chance, Chicago.

Verdant gardens and steamy nights
gave Way to logic, tight pants
and circumscribed thoughts.

If we must give thanks to God,
give thanks that nature’s complexities,
great as they are,
are not made Worse
by unbridled production
of lush ejaculations,
surprises of momentary excess.

For, in true fecundity
the unexpected outcomes
rapidly expand
with the madness of passion,
and one fine afternoon,
while on a country ride,
we might make a turn
and find a vista with two suns,
or the beasts of The Revelation
ready to destroy one in three.

Perhaps we might also see
a small band of beings,
like ourselves, but with wings
and faces that shine,
come to take us home
to newcreationville,

where cats finally speak out loud
of higher things,
and dogs of other dogs,

where no mystery is in the stars
that cannot be explained by any child.

Yet even there, love
will remain as arousing
as in the first,
or even this world

and deep green and damp
we will,
as did the original mind,
birth ourselves a new creation
between the grass and stars.
From SHARD, poems by Mark Harris, 2008, Preludium Press.

Four Women:

                                        Woman from the Sea, linocut 8 x 10 in, 2014

Woman, linocut 8 x 10 in, 2014

unknown woman, engraving, 2 x 3 in, 2015

Mary, from icon, linocut, 10x 12 in., 2014

These images are of unknown women, who are apparently part of my new creation. Two have the marks of holiness… the halo, two do not.   In creating these images, I am, of course, making things new. It is unclear how much is projection, how much is wish fulfillment, how much is just curiosity. But there they are: Four women.


When she smiles
white herons
lift into the night.

Two blue moons of Mars,
the golden shore,
the wild creatures
of the coastal plain,

all, all quiet:
we wait the sounds to come.

Observation:  Art is about waiting on, with, for what might call us, urging us forward to what is to come.
Creating the world to come…the “new world,” is no easy thing.  If we are caught up in making all things new, perhaps we might begin by listening to the sounds that come in what already is.
In this poem written sometime before 1980, I tried to be clear about waiting. Waiting for the creation itself to inform us of what we ought to create is participation in divine action, and is one of the practices of incarnation.
Image the Divine One, at the end of each day of creation, waiting to see what the created has to say about what ought to happen next.  Suppose creation was from the beginning a dialogue with what is not yet fully realized and what already is present.
A cautionary note: I speak as if my statements about art were definitive…they are not. Rather they are in a sense a “program” of my own choosing. They are statements about what I think art is about.


St. Martha, pissed,
3x5 in. linocut, 2014

“Jester,” monoprint, 12 x 18 in, 2015

Two images, both of real people, imagined. One Saint, Martha, whose grousing comment is remembered forever, the other an icon of a woman, or at least an androgynous, jester, whose features we have seen before.  In creating, even in making all things new, we drag the past with us, for nothing is forgotten.
Observation: Art, as creative of the new, is so in part because of the experience of what has been.  It is not that there is no new thing in art, but rather that all art builds on the whole of creation before, and all the reaction to it after, the creative action itself.  Art is finally experiential.
The poems I write (and I write mostly poems that are reports of reality viewed from a political or sensual side) are experientially grounded. They are (I hope) what Ed Sanders called “Investigative Poetry.”  The various visual works I have made find their grounding in images, quite often images of faces.  We look to faces as the first incarnational place where feelings, thoughts, fears, joys, hidden from words appear. As we are more skilled, of course, other body expressions expand on that, but the face is for me the first place of contact with unspoken fears and hopes.
Here are some more faces:

Norman, woodcut, 8 X 10 in. 2014

Jim, Woodcut, 10X12 in. 2015

Olrich, linocut, 10X12 in. 2015

Bonnie, Woodcut, 8 x 10 in., 2014

These are faces of people I know well.  What am I creating here? Images of reality, or of idealized reactions to what I experience in these people?  How much is my creation a product of knowing these people, and how much a product of their forming me and my images of them?  And is there a place for divine intervention in all this… where the Creator engages the artist, the subject of the artist’s interest, and the creative actions themselves?  The questions grow and grow, but I am convinced that these small efforts to scratch out an image and print that image are creative precisely to the extent that the subjects press me to work up the image to some end, some world made new.
An observation:  Art provides a context in which experiencing others becomes a window to a new creation.  The images here are a way of seeing again, and seeing in a new way both.
If you remember my early poems and efforts – sex and politics.  Sensual, sexual, engagement and its wonders are one thing. Political strife and engagement is another. They are windows.
Most of my thinking about political matters grows from living communally for many years and from my engagement with people in Haiti. No wonder then that my creative expression includes themes and questions that arise from those experiences.  Some images:
Yvan the Gardner, woodcut, 12 x 12 in., 2014

Sitting Bull, linocut 10 x 12 in, overlay on linocut background.   Gift to the Council of the Cheyenne River Reservation, Eagle Butte, SD.

His Eye, linocut, 6x8, with type, 2014

The Storm to Come, monoprint with linocut overlay, 12x18 in., 2015

From the beginning poem of Requiem for the Dictator (1992)
[Voice 3]

The death of the dictator
requires that We seek forgiveness
for suffering his rule of arbitrary might,
for not finding new calls
beyond his power,
beyond the President for Life.

[Voice 1]

Our first cry is that the mercy of God
and of his Son,
replace the mercy of the dictator
and his.

From The Octararo Anti-War Manifesto, in SHARD, (1980)

The body remembers love,
without arrogance or pride:
in the body’s streams and rivers,

small creeks and crevasses,

in its thousand hidden places,
in the curve of a shoulder,
in the way the hand spreads
and then grasps,
In the grasses
Below the now rounded belly,
in the tilt of the head,
in a glancing smile -
the body remembers.

The gaze and body
and the love are one.

I suppose
the smells of all the terror
are not to be compared
to the scent of grass
and clear streams
and the glance -
    grace on grace.

From Requiem for the Dictator. (1992)

I believe in only isolation
On Haiti’s southern coastal road.

I feel it,
jarring as the ruts,
delicate as the light on cane leaves
in the late afternoon.

Still, there is the hint of more,
of beauty seen in people
who suddenly appear beside the road -
not seen exactly, but sensed.

Around the edges of reason's limits,
and in the reach across
broad rivers of injustice,
and estrangement,

I see Wood nymphs,
satyrs, Pans,
in Haiti.

Raised on brambles, cactus, sisal,
African born,
borne on Haiti's body -
in them there is the beginning
of the new,
the promised Haiti,
the Republic yet to come.

Isolation,  woodcut, 10x12 in. 2015

The Dictator is not our Friend, woodcut, 10x12, 2014

Seminarian, linocut, 4x6 in. 2014

The Presidential Candidate becomes President, linocuts, 4x6 in, 2014

I see my creative activities as political, that is as building for a new creation as community. So in my poetry and printmaking both I work at images that suggest that from the experience of community arise hints for a new world, a new society. Some of the hints are cautionary:  The Dictator is not our Friend; The Storm of dictatorship can still come.  Some are celebratory: We can find community in places of isolation, our bodies remember the community of one and one.  Some are about having a sense of place and role in change. But again, the connection is between a sense that Creation has purpose or value, and that as creatives we enter into dialogue with the source of creation and with the created universe, always pushing “forwards and upwards.”
Observation: In Art, the good, the true and the beautiful are linked, and thus creatives engage in making the whole creation new.

And, not to put too fine a point on, we creatives are the incarnation of the Creator for our time and place. That is, we are the makers in fact of all things new, and if new, possibly most like the intent of the Creator in their newness.

The Observations:
  1. Participation in the arts by being present as receiver is itself participation in the creation of a new world.
  2. Art is about waiting on, with, for what might call us, urging us forward to what is to come.
  3. Art, as creative of the new, is so in part because of the experience of what has been.
  4. Art provides a context in which experiencing others becomes a window to a new creation.
  5. In Art, the good, the true, and the beautiful are linked, and thus creatives engage in making the whole creation new.

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