22 September, 2008

Moral Courage & Art

Photo: Robert Capa

Clear-cut courage has few detractors, if any. It is above reproach. It is a trait of few words.

Courage can be defined as doing the right thing in a "What are you going to do now?" kind of circumstance. Courage requires things of you; actions, and precious few words, if any.

Once you say you have courage, you have just kicked the ball away. Courage deep down has less to do with yourself, and more to do with an ideal. Courage builds up others, and our culture and civilization depend upon it.

Courage costs you dearly, and it forever adds value to the rest of humanity. There is an intertwining of the moral and the physical sides of courage. In other words, if I act bravely in an immoral cause, what is the benefit? Less than none, in my opinion.

Clear-cut courage has few detractors, if any. It is above reproach. It is a trait of few words.

My searches for artistic courage via Google were less than dismal. The query results are underwhelming in the extreme. Logically, there either is little understanding of artistic courage among visual art, few examples of artistic courage (available to see on Internet text), or else the trait is pedestrian and unremarkable.

How to explain it?

Artistic courage is a more abstract kind of thing than the military or physical trait. How to explain it? It generally is a lot slower kind of courage than the type personified by the soldiers at the "hedgehog" obstacles in the famous Capa photo above. But courage does involve obstacle defeating, no matter where you apply it.

My first thoughts of artistic courage go to Vincent van Gogh. See my posts on van Gogh. The founding member of Modern Art, our Vincent may have been feeble in his physical self, but in pushing the boundaries of artistic possibilities, a hero.

...courage with the brush! Courage with color!

But, courage with the brush! Courage with color! That's what we know our man van Gogh for. He was in the van of making pure color say expressive things on the canvas.

Another artist that comes immediately to mind is Francis Picabia (1879-1953). Picabia cared more for artistic exploration than for his reputation or profit.

Via Pollocks the Bollocks,

With his brilliant reputation firmly established after the exhibition at the Galerie Georges Petit in 1909, Picabia abandons the past and his place as its famous protagonist to embark on the adventure of modern art....

A young artist of thirty, he is banished from the company of established galeries, their clientèle and critics. The coup de grace is administered by Danthon, March 1909, at the Hotel Drouot where he auctions off over one hundred of Picabia’s lmpressionist paintings.

Order of Courage:

Van Gogh, 1886
John Peter Russel


If your culture demands that you make your art this way or that, what must you then do? Next: How To Have Artistic Courage!


Anonymous said...

What a marvelous post. I think you have so perfectly defined courage in a world where people are encouraged to be utterly self-centered, to always act from only their own best interest. It's what has shaped this sad world in the last thirty years.

Writing as someone that is an army brat and cut teeth on tales of WW2 and Korea from my father, Viet Nam from my cousins, and having myself served in Somalia and who was on the ground during the so-called "Black Hawk Down," the battle of Mogadishu Oct 3-4, 1993, I feel you honor the concept of military courage perfectly and respectfully. Thank you for that.

And you beautifully tie into courage in the arts. I recently read Madeleine L'Engle's book, "Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art." And I'd suggest you read it. Maybe most people will have trouble with how Christian it is, it bothered me a little, but what she speaks to is the courage to do and be and create in times of crisis. That making art, writing a story, creating a sonnet are acts not just of life giving and life enhancing acts, but that they are acts of faith on the part of the artist and writer and poet. They affirm life and belief that life will continue, it will move forward without us.

Maybe courage isn't just following your spirit to stroke your brush differently, or apply color "oddly," maybe just the simple act of creating in this nuclear and terrorist age is courage.

Yellow said...

If I'm having trouble nailing down my understanding of something, I'll look at the opposite. So contemplating cowardice; submitting to fear, pain, intimidation, uncertanty (from Wikepedia - sorry!). Therefore, my thoughts are that for an artist to have courage these obsticles must exist and be rejected, or overcome. You can not act bravely if you have no fear in the first place.

Casey Klahn said...

You are both adding much to the dialogue. Thank you for that.

Steph, you're ahead of me regarding the next post. I'll be illuminating the bad things that happened to Matisse, et al., and actually giving specifics on "how to" get courage in art making. Study is a wonderful thing.

Penny, it's nice to meet you. From one veteran to another, thank you for your service.

Actually, in the Bible, courage is linked to the presence of Jesus and having faith. Much to know there about courage, IMHO.

In the military, courage is currency. It makes a perfect illumination/parallel to artistic courage. Thanks for the book reference.

Anonymous said...

Hi Casey,

My friends and I have discussed courage. In its simplest terms, I think it is action in the face of fear whether that be a ruined body, ruined reputation, ruined finances. And moral courage always pops up in the most surprising of places, where one would never expect it.

I recall reading the story of a small town southern woman, a mother and stay at home wife who, in the early sixties, felt her southern church was not responding as they should to the Civil Rights movement. She withdrew herself and her family. That made her entire family persona non grata. I felt so moved by the courage of someone who acted out of her convictions to a deep cost.

And thank you for your service as well,

jafabrit said...

Great post. Artist courage for me is putting yourself out there even knowing that the world doesn't exactly love what you do. Risking being authentic and true to self knowing that your work has a fat chance of selling, but you try anyway and face the rejection or indifference.

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