The Joy of Anonymous Craftsmanship
~ by Randi Maria Sider-Rose ~
When art was severed from God, when the anonymous craftsperson became rather an “artistic superstar,” a vital connection to creativity was lost. Saint Raphael iconography instructor Randi Maria Sider-Rose reflects on how all visual art, East or West, benefits from returning to this earlier notion of making art only for the glory of God. For students of art, the notion of working anonymously can be the very thing that helps us persevere and re-discover the joy of creating something beautiful.
There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed- master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.(1)
So begins the film-maker Igmar Bergman, more known for his dark and brooding style than Christian theology. The question that had been posed to him was: What is your intention with your films? Surprisingly, he answers that his intention- or what he would like his intention to be- is the same as that of the anonymous medieval craftsperson: to participate in the “collective building of the Cathedral.” This, cites the film-maker, is the key to the creative drive: the connection of art to worship and its necessary corollary-the anonymity of the artist, working only for God.
In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; ‘eternal values,’ ‘immortality’ and ‘masterpiece’ were terms not applicable in his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility. (2)
How startling to see this- and from the 1960’s secular art world no less! The 60’s is the same decade that celebrated Andy Warhol of my own home base, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The man was obsessed with what might be called the triumph of the individual and the complete refutation of the anonymous craftsman. His pop art featured not just Campbell Soup Cans but “Superstars” and pop icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.
Less well known are Warhol’s studious efforts to ensure that he himself would be seen as a pop icon. His bleach blonde, flop-top look, for example, was part of the very intentional attempt to fashion himself as a memorable Superstar, and he also took pains to leave a legacy beyond his death. 610 times over the course of 20 years, Warhol swept the contents of the top of his desk into a “time capsule,” a cardboard box he taped and dated. He was convinced that after his death, future fans would laboriously go through each box, one at a time, with rubber gloves and various high-tech record-keeping equipment- as in fact they do at the Pittsburgh Warhol Museum. (3)
Though seemingly unbridled egoism seems to have worked for Warhol- in the commercial sense- the flouting of the individual artist in the art world is debilitating for most people, and I know of more than one person who turned away from the field because of it. A visual artist is required to market him or her-self in order to make it financially. Thus, one’s name and even (fabricated) personality has to be plastered all over one’s eponymous website, social media account, and everything produced artistically, the implicit individualism of which is exhausting and severs that wholesome connection between art and God.
As an iconographer- an anonymous tradition more like theology than art- my concern is more with the effects of this artistic “Superstar” model on the process of learning to draw and paint for students. After all, even though iconography is a prayer of the hands, towards the end of producing an object of prayer, one of the technical requirements is the ability to draw, just as a choir director needs to be able to read music and hit the notes or the resultant warbling and vocal experimentation would be the farthest thing from facilitating prayer and worship for the Church.
Far from just a concern of the professional artist, the notion of the individualistic, artistic Superstar invades the way we think about learning art in general. It has a way of creeping in whenever we pick up a pencil. Do I have what it takes? the anxious art student asks. Am I meant to be doing this? At the root of all these questions is the false story our culture tells that some people are born artistic geniuses and the rest of us should just step aside, bent over with shame at our feeble attempt to enter the world of visual art.
Yet if we remove the notion that some people “have it” and some don’t, and replace it with the joyful acknowledgement that, as Bergman puts it, the ability to create is a gift, we find that we do have the courage to pick up that pencil and draw, and that drawing and other visual expression brings a mundane, quotidian sort of satisfaction and pleasure. In a world full of anonymous “craftspeople”- and we do need to re-claim that word since “artist” is so weighted- we too can experience the peace of, in Bergman’s words, “invulnerable assurance and natural humility.”
There is a necessary corollary to natural humility, though, that our current culture also encourages us to forget when it comes to the visual arts: persistence. It is actually a very humble and courageous move to persistently pick up that pencil and draw- Not pick it up once, try a drawing, and give it up for good for the rest of your life (as my father-in-law recounted just last week that he once did)- but pick it up over and over, paying special attention to one’s weak points and working on them until we have the freedom of use in that particular area (4)- just as we would find a teacher and practice a musical instrument if we had any hope of gaining the satisfaction of being able to play it beautifully.
“Thus,” concludes Bergman, “if I am asked what I would like the general purpose of my films to be, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain.” (5). There are not many actual opportunities today to work together the way Chartres was built or the way a medieval guild functioned, or even something like the family-based workshops of Romanian glass iconographers. But recovering that earlier sense of self, the anonymous craftsperson working for the glory of God, is still the key to persevering during the inevitable setbacks- and to recovering the deep-seated Joy that comes from laboring away to draw, paint, or build something beautiful.
- Igmar Bergman, The Seventh Seal (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), p. 8.
- Ibid, p. 8.
- In truth, Andy Warhol had some even lesser-known habits that might point to a more depth of character than he let on to the public, such as going to a Byzantine Catholic Church with his mother, with whom he lived for most of his adult life.
- For an excellent treatment of the strategy of tackling the most difficult parts of any skill as the way to make progress, see Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (Boston: Mariner Books, 2017).
- Bergman, p. 9.