Painter Alexander Newley opened the Shakespeare Academy’s first exhibition ‘A Celebration of the Forest’ with a speech of the same title that explores the role of the artist as shaman mediating between Nature and an increasingly neurotic civilisation. It is the duty of the artist, argues Newley, to keep civilisation healthy by maintaining that element of wildness that the forest has symbolised from time immemorial.
My apologies, but I must begin with a quote from Sigmund Freud:
“The price of civilization is neurosis.”
Or, put another way: The price of civilization is artifice. Why?
Because, to go into the forest, to cut down trees and clear a space so that we can build a house and a paddock for our animals, involves a disavowal of wildness and our love of trees and the unknown. We want security, we want a fence around our property to keep out the wolves and the bears; but to ensure this, to go to that place in our minds where walls our built and the wild side of ourselves is excluded, we must begin the process of separation between ourselves and Nature, which is the cause of so many of our contemporary ills.
“The price of civilization is neurosis.” Pessimistic. But largely true, I think. We have our civilization now: our roads, our endless lines of demarcation; our laws, walls, prisons; our modes of behavior and indentured servitude to ideas of hard work and productivity, but we also have the shadow aspect of these securities: war, persecution, hatred, bigotry and so on.
The fact is that the magnificent, soaring skyscraper of our human boast casts a very long shadow indeed.
“The price of civilization is neurosis.” Or: the skyscraper cannot out-build its shadow.
But we MUST have civilization, we must have security, we must have the comforting thought that our children will not wander beyond the confines of our homestead and get lost in the forest. For the Brothers Grimm have told us what happens next: they get eaten, they get seduced, they get turned into jackals and run wild. They may even come home to us with these strange tales to tell; enchant us, and turn us mad as well.
Who will protect us from this evil magic?
Enter the artist, the shaman, who moderates between civilization and neurosis, between artifice and rational security. The artist understands that civilization is necessary, but he or she laments the loss of wildness and vitality that goes along with it. Is it possible to keep BOTH alive? Does a gain in elegance and order always entail a loss of raw and passionate feeling?
Anyone who has watched a great dancer leap into the air or contemplated a great painting or sculpture knows that this is not the case. In a true work of art, order, symmetry and rationality are seamlessly fused with wildness, chaos and infinite suggestion. A cubist painting by Picasso bristles with all the possibilities of anarchy and chaos, but at the same time it is held in the iron-clad grid of a rationally unfolding process.
This is the artist’s magic, his shamanic gift: to balance the opposites and fuse them together into a new wholeness. How DOES he do it? How does he bring alive the forest in the middle of a city street? How does he show us all the colors of the rainbow in an oily factory puddle?
Because, on a deep level, the artist never left the forest, never forgot its beauty, its loving shadows and sudden interventions of light. The forest, for the artist, is not so much tied up with a fear of the unknown, as it is with a memory of love and belonging. The loss of this connection threatens his very being; he needs it like an oxygen—he looks for meaning and beauty everywhere, obsessively… And so, passing the factory puddle, he sees the rainbow there and is arrested by it; he must tell others about it; he must remind them that the magic is still alive, even in the dark and dingy factory.
Who taught him to see like this? To notice everything? To find light in the midst of darkness?
In the forest there is a mystical being. An old man with a long white beard who sits very still. He is variously known as Merlin, Gandalf, Obi One Kenobi; he is the archetype of time-honored wisdom, and his first lesson to us is to sit still and breath and observe. He is the meditator in the woods, and his joy is to hear the birds sing and observe the breeze moving through the leaves. He loves the forest and is at peace there. The beasts come to him and lay down at his feet to be petted. The music he plays on his lute tames all the savage unknown spirits of the forest and reveals their true nature. He is like Prospero, with power over Caliban and Ariel; the power to enchant them and bind them to a higher purpose, which is art.
He is waiting for us.
We have wandered into the forest looking for our lost confidence: the young man, to find his courage, the young woman, to trust her connection to the awesome cycles of death and rebirth that is her fertility. We are aware that there are dragons in the forest and maidens held captive in towers and caves. But we are taken by surprise by this kindly old man. “Sit down” he says. “Observe the flowers. Observe the sunlight. And look…look at the rainbow colors in that puddle left by the rain.
And we never forget it. We never forget this moment of revelation, of the infinite residing in the small.
And to have this knowledge, to have it deeply, that every moment of life is touched by the sublime, is the essential knowledge that the artist has, that he cannot shake, which haunts him and drives him to create art; which, after all, is really a celebration of the sacredness of life.
But we look upon the sacred forest now, and we see that we are destroying it: there is little of it left to beguile and enchant us. We have become so successful at making ourselves feel safe that we have almost destroyed the vitality of the unknown.
What can be done?
Lets return to the homestead–to the walled enclosure, to our need for security, sameness and order in our lives–and lets introduce a new element: ritual, celebration, a moment of thanksgiving for what the forest has given us. Lets build a fire and dance around it. Lets make and wear masks that represent the forest spirits and scare each other and laugh about it; and lets use art to transform our fear of the unknown into an appreciation of limitless possibility and invention; and through this alchemy, lets become more fully human.
And here we are. At this event and many more like it occurring all over the world as consciousness reaches a critical mass, we re-dedicate ourselves to a ritual identification with Nature, to find ourselves again in Nature’s plan, so that we can hear its music, its logic, and save the destiny of humankind that Shakespeare never dared envisage: a proud king, aware of his shadow, turning his tragic flaw into a sacred responsibility to change and outgrow the old dramas that have held him hostage.
On this new stage we strut and fret to a real purpose. Our distress is heard and actions are taken. All our human noise has brought us to this. Take physic Pomp! See yourself as you are. Accept yourself as you are. Your reality was always more beautiful than your disguise. Don’t be afraid to discard your mask now, and move forward into the Real.
‘A Celebration of the Forest’ is a new exhibition in the Conservatory at Bestwood Lodge curated by joint Artists-in-Residence Charles Beauclerk and Sarah Davenport. The exhibition is available to view most days after 5pm, but if you would like to check availability please feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image courtesy of Hue of Two.