In the higher cultural spheres, people not interested in the artistic life have been called ‘ordinary people’, or the so-called ‘gray mass’. I did not agree with this contemptuous discrimination of the spiritual condition of normal people. The artist does not appeal to the MASSES but to the INDIVIDUAL; the encounter with a work of art is always a personal experience. This is why art – addressed to the individual – is more effective than police at dispersing crowds. What I want to say through art is that which concerns MAN, not CRITICISM or TRADE of art.
In the 1960s, a fierce debate erupted about art having descended from the metaphorical ivory tower and becoming involved with the everyday life. One time, when I was in a café, a supporter of the misinterpreted autonomy of art asked me a question: What would a laborer, peasant or a barber choose if you offered them your painting or a pair of shoes? – and he answered the question himself, saying he would choose shoes!
I found the question to be really disturbing and the answer made me worried. I began to wonder about the spiritual life of these ordinary people: Is man, contemptuously called ‘GRAY’, truly insensitive to aesthetic values, to ideas? Is he not capable of experiencing the life more deeply? Are those that frequent exhibitions, theaters and philharmonic halls somewhat automatically BETTER, spiritually richer than the peasant, the laborer, the clerk, the barber, the cook? Was the slave doomed from the beginning to a spiritual zero? There are various kinds and forms of enslavement – even the blinded sense of superiority. There are also various depths of experiencing, and everyone experiences differently the spiritual individuality – if one has not abandoned one’s own UNIQUENESS…
I included those reflections about the richness of grayness in my short essay ‘Zraniony lew’ (‘Wounded lion’), published in ‘Tygodnik Powszechny’. After forty years of having practiced the rules of life in the shadow’s trail, I was once again moved by the question of the diverse shades of grayness, between mental dullness and spiritual independence, and being oneself in this unifying world.
It is possible to admire the mysterious hieroglyphic signs that one cannot read and imagine the shouting of slave drivers that one cannot hear. The slave in the Egyptian relief stares goggle-eyed: through this stare one can fathom the depths of the interpersonal abyss and the fear of perseverance mixed with the curiosity of life. His lips were used to remaining silent.
The sculptor did not give him a shape that would be worth the use of alabaster, the procedures of the canon also do not provide gilding for slaves. The slave’s crude shape reminds the tourists of the sour taste of disdain, if they had experienced it. Carved in coarse stone, he survived ages of injustice in the tomb of the pharaoh, robbed long ago.
He is gray like the rock that entraps him, so that he would be a testimony of the UNIMPORTANCE that became ascribed to him like a burn mark on the cattle’s rump. Even when he is by himself, he gives off the impression of a crowd. His face resembles a trodden road that he was driven through. He was always a unit of measurement of enslavement. His grayness became the protective hue of the humiliated poor.
They say the sphinx is wise as he stares nowhere in particular and is inaccessible in his contemplation. Of course, sphinxes contemplate timeless matters of forgotten gods and mummified sovereigns. Their symbolic mysteriousness arouses the imagination of explorers and the interest of the ‘ordinary people’. They remain silent because the transient world orders do not have to explain themselves to the tourists. No one would say that the slave’s pursed lips are a symbol of wisdom, although his silence is more meaningful than the moored MUTENESS of conceited sphinxes.
The Egyptian slave did not walk through the Sphinx Alley, imbued with the sense of his dignified uselessness, but like the good Samaritan he leaned over the wounded land and sheltered it from harm that was done to life by those hungry for fame and splendor. The humiliated find allies among other humiliated species. One can imagine a slave resting under a tree in the evening, telling the birds about how his day went. And they, all at once, shared their stories of scavenging for food. It is easy for the slave to understand that every creature has something to say and needs to be heard. So he listens to them and chatters with them in the belief that this is what life is about. It is curious that stray dogs walk alone and rarely bark, that they do not like open spaces and that they immediately recognize the humiliated whom they first sniff and then sit down by their side. Perhaps they are jealous of slaves who have their masters…
The gray man adapts to any surrounding because he does not flaunt his feelings and does not stand out with showy decorations. Inherent in the social landscape, he acts as a filler of space between the sacred, the permissions, the dominations. The gray man IS, just like the tree in the woods is, just like the leaf in the foliage is. And yet everything that has a shape longs to be seen, that is why there are no two identical leaves…
Etruscan and Roman sculptures have made a great impression on me with the veracity of their expression: one can sense the individual naturalness of man, his moves and facial expression reveal personal emotions, passions, moods – just as if one knew him by sight. Similarly fascinating are Peter Breughel’s picturesque stories about the ordinary everyday life that take the viewer into the distant past, rendering him ready to empathize with the situation, to understand the illustrated happening as if he was participating in them himself.
In the times when hatred circles the earth like a hurricane, trampling and smashing everything that is human – the gray man stores NORMALITY in his ordinariness, his eyes show a faint sparkle of genuine optimism in perseverance: winter is followed by spring – the plowing and sowing must commence. Winter is easily forgotten – in spring everything suddenly comes alive. Whilst the cries of the killed were exploding all around, Colas Breugnon frolicked with his woman out of habit. Even when strangers burn, beat and slash, one must feed one’s children, fowl and pigs, milk the cows, wash the linen and have an evening sip of wine with a neighbor – to celebrate the passing day. The gray man knows that he has no influence on the fate of the humankind, and without conflictual burdens he goes about his own matters, as natural as breathing. Reconciled with fate, they enjoy the everyday life which is similarly different each day. Thus it is worth being, since you already are…
Those who tour the world with fire and sword are rewarded with triumphal arches. To them, the horizon of the ‘ordinary man’ is merely an agreed-upon border of the areas to be conquered. When the work of destruction is done, they climb the Olympus dressed in gilded robes, whilst memorable marches play. Conquerors do not die; they leave in a blaze of glory and at the expense of the ‘ordinary people’, leaving behind orphans and monuments.
Corot’s gray man dies in solitude, in the silence of faded humiliations, nestling against the friendly mother-earth to which he was so attached.
Those busy with being above and beyond commonness think that the spirituality of simple people is also simplistic, i.e. shallow. They do not know that at all times in history, the souls of the meek shone with colors of exuberant, unbridled imagination. The sorrowfulness of a random village Christ is surely more genuine than the academic joy of a procession of dancing maids in the allegoric ‘Aurora’ by Guido Reni: in the Baroque period, commonness was masked with beauty powder, illusions, appearances. I do not blame the ‘ordinary people’ for not being interested in this kind of art. I believe that even the matching of a tie to a suit is an aesthetic choice. The life of gray people goes by slowly, without publicity. Is the hectic life of the men of the world not more superficial than the quiet walk which favors observation and contemplation? Or the hedonistic grayness of those addicted to pleasure who are playing at life: is the cult of celebrities and idols not an attempt to fill the spiritual atrophy? It is enough to compare the naturalness of having fun in an old-fashioned suburban honky-tonk with today’s discos made more artificial with laser beams, clamor and ecstasy.
The ordinary gray man is rarely being promoted, therefore he does not have the career ladder complex, he does not stumble on its rungs and he does not fall down. He does not have any power over anyone, so he can quietly do his own thing because he answers only to himself. However, history teaches that if the gray man dares to dream of power, he can trigger an avalanche. It is obvious that there would not be any power-possessed dictators and their criminal systems if there were no blood-hungry gray masses. The grayness of fans is dense, contaminated with the collective attraction to someone or something…
The grayness of the unimportant is individual. The life of the unseen seems to be monotonous and common. Fortune has bestowed them with an insatiable HUNGER for life, thanks to which they can enjoy the little things, the beauty of which those sated with hues have no idea about. Those who looked on in secret from behind the window how a numerous, ordinary family was eating supper, they could see how cheerful the mood by the table can be, despite the absence of stuffed cabbages served on gilded chinaware. How much love hides under the cover of mutual teasing! For fun. Those evening meals are also a natural way for the family to cleanse themselves from the tensions of a colorless day. They have their friendships, their acquaintances, colleagues, their clubs, pubs, amusements and ways of celebrating, they have their passions and interests, which in the upper financial spheres are neglected due to the lack of time or the spiritual need. The neighborhood relationship can be more intense and more filled with kindness than in the case of those who stand alone in the spotlight.
Common people tend to have uncommon imagination. Imagination cannot be substituted with travels, but the lack of imagination can spoil the most exciting journey. Any lowly den can become home to those who are deprived of their own, if they possess enough warmth to feel at home anywhere. One does not forget the taste of jacket potatoes prepared during Christmas Eve at wartime…
Grayness in not synonymous with poverty. Rather, it is an attitude of accepting one’s life and making it the best. External limitations, which man has no influence over, need not lead to moral discomfort – they may encourage to explore and to develop one’s inner values: to make full use of the possibilities DEPENDENT on one’s will. Beauty cannot be weighed, its size cannot be measured and it definitely cannot be bought because it is the value of one’s personal experience. The spontaneous joy from the peculiarity of a wooden root found in the forest, or the admiration of a mother feeding her baby, depend on the attentive and sensitive way of being. Beauty is a SITUATION, a happening that causes one to experience, to sense, to be moved – it is not a product, not a commodity.
The beauty of a work of art is found in the strength of the artistic reflection. After the discouraging example with the painting and the shoes, I sometimes find myself thinking: What would a laborer, a peasant or a barber choose? The art I am working on right now or the shoes? It always gives me a boost!
The artist needs to FEEL the person he wants to reach out to with the artistic message: in the same way one feels, with each and every nerve, the recipient of one’s love letter. The artist needs to penetrate the recipient’s imagination and arouse it, touch the recipient’s sensitivity with his own, and stir it – in order to not lose his way in empty gestures, to not stumble on grimaces, to not get stuck under the blind wall of appearances. No other recipients are more grateful than these ordinary people who are capable of true emotions and feelings, who value every moment of their ordinary life. The artist just needs to have something personal to communicate…
The times of legal and social discrimination of the humble ones have passed, along with the cultural and civilizational motivations of the traditional social divisions. The atomization of social roles has split human existence into various different functions. The continuous spiritual necessity to put on various guises makes it difficult to retain one’s sense of identity. In the interpersonal hierarchy of entitlements and significance, the only criterion that counts is MONEY. Nowadays, when money makes greed a virtue, one may find it difficult to resist the force of attraction that money possesses. A niche made of one’s own ideals, built on the outskirts of the overcrowded reality does not offer shelter from the temptation of giving up one’s independence. Nowadays, poverty has become painful because what forms the basis of discrimination is no longer one’s birth, but the lack of money. The grayness of the unemployed has become the hue of the individual deprived of livelihood. Unlike those busy with enjoying prosperity, those without a job experience a growing sense of time being turned off: while everything on the inside grinds to a halt, everything outside increases in speed.
The grayness of the unemployed and the slave are different in their nature: the slave is fated to work, his grayness hides the qualities of his spirituality; the unemployed is deprived of work, his grayness expresses the spiritual blockage caused by the feeling of being redundant.
Those who view the world through gray-tinted glasses of hopelessness are not met at possibility fairs. In their empty calendars, dates hold no significance. Tomorrow is another day for them to sit on the park bench and watch the grass grow. That is, until progress lays down plastic lawns.
The market evaluates values by the demand, it verifies man’s social status and adjusts his identity according to his purchasing power. The grayness of the nouveau riche has its source in the assumption that the mere possession of money makes a man worthy and gives his life meaning. The spirituality, busy with making money, experiences the conflict of choices and the anxiety of making decisions. Also science and art surrendered to the market-driven philosophy of everything being for sale and having a price. The cult of PROFIT does not care about the non-listed spiritual values: soulless artistic creativity and science-for-profit are trendy…
The grayness of the ordinary fast-food-eaters living in the zone of prosperity is obese, stuffed with transplants and made indolent with automation – this is where the cultural panting and wheezing from trying to catch up with the progress of civilization comes from. Sensitivity goes blind from being overloaded with dazzling stimuli, the intellect withers from the lack of ideas, and the rarely used imagination becomes dull – too lazy to make any effort, since the media does all the work. The eyes of those made inert by the lack of money, the eyes of those enslaved by its overabundance – they stare with equal intensity outside, making it impossible to read what is behind them...
People walked various paths to enter into the modern civilization. When after the war the citizens of overpopulated villages were moving to cities in search of work, they were ridiculed for keeping chickens, ducks and rabbits in the bathrooms of apartment blocks. However, the biggest threat to the middle-class or the proletarian way of life was the massive inflow of rural youth attracted by the fast growing industry in the cities.
The dull grayness of peasants-no-more and not-yet-townies derived from cultural dislocation: from losing the cherished values so that they could adapt. This grayness was the color of showy ignoramuses who disregarded tradition and norms of behavior. Only the subsequent generations of rural immigrants came into this world with a set of ‘urban’ genes.
Gastarbeiters and asylum seekers, who defend their spiritual individuality, are less prone to suffering from cultural schizophrenia. But in the West one pays for being DIFFERENT by being a stranger, yet no stranger to closed doors and walls covered with slogans calling for tolerance. Such a suspension within social disintegration dooms one to observe the new homeland from a distance: one can see the sumptuous table, but one is afraid to take anything from it…
The women of the East tend to be literally gray; their beauty is made abominable by the religious and social masking of sensuality. Their outer grayness is perhaps an expression of the inner incineration, because they pridefully flaunt the gray, retro robes from the times of feudalism when the almighty SEXISM has given men the right to reign over women and to stone the disobedient daughters, sisters and wives – everything to defend the honor of the male family. Mental grayness comes from being enslaved by an ideology which is why it is resistant to personal reflections and likes to uniformize.
Unlike the ubiquitous Turkish people or the enterprising Italians, many Germans from the banks of Volga take advantage of unemployment to sit and do nothing. Haunted by the nostalgic grayness, the newcomers from Russia feel best while in a collective, living on memories.
Assimilation is evil because every re-coloring damages the original; sticking out or isolating oneself in a ghetto is also foolish: why move Turkey or China to Germany? Western Europe resembles an interchange train hub, crowded with lifelong travelers from all over the world. Ostentatious separation, as well as being more native than the natives, give off the pathetic impression of SOMETHING being not in ITS PLACE. I have learned from my own experience that it is best if people, who for many reasons lost their original place on earth, would also leave behind their cultural masks and open themselves to their own individual spiritual naturalness. Because those who can be true to themselves, without the need for psychological disguise, they will feel everywhere at home and will be able to develop! Speaking of development, the openness in sharing oneself with fellow humans is a more valuable attitude than withdrawing into one’s own, closed community. Multiplicity is the new spiritual quality: the accepted cohabitation of nationally, religiously and culturally intermixed communities is a sign of the times inc which the quarreling human family is globalized.
Past grayness was something natural in the tradition of interpersonal injustice and it did not cause either a sharp pain in one’s soul, nor the feeling of inequity or failure. People born to live in poverty, hard work and humiliation tried to manage their fate the best they could. In the face of forced or ideological enslavement, of social constraint and poverty that limited chances – it was spirituality that offered them a space for their own identity and a chance for self-fulfillment. Hence comes the tendency of the traditional, of the so colorfully gray people toward emotional perception, subjective thinking and imaginative dreaming, toward noticing the unusual in the usual matters, things, activities. Wandering in circles through the living space given to them, they attentively looked around to the sides, carefully took note of the slightest changes, shared small news and opinions with those they would encounter, and despite knowing each other well, each meeting had its rite and continuation in contemplating about the same – but in a different way. This repetitiveness offered them a sense of security, whilst the freshness in perceiving the everyday life renewed their perseverance. The inhabitants regarded their village as a common good and, with managerial curiosity, they observed HOW normality goes on in other homesteads. From the attentive observation of life and the collected experiences they weaved amusing associations and surprising conclusions, which are still commonly quoted as folk wisdom.
They felt part of the landscape that was their space of existence. The stability of life, the respect for the recurring duties and the neighborly ties were conducive toward establishing local customs. Vivid beliefs and reflective meditations were the source of fairy tales, of legends and poetry, of songs and dances, of sculptures and paintings – peculiar interpretations of their world and commentaries of their lives. They were taming the gray reality with their imagination.
One who has to overcome difficulties every day knows that to LIVE means to PERSEVERE – to endure hunger, illness, tempest and hailstorm, severe winter, fire, flooding and poor harvest – all is life! When each day has its price, grayness acquires the depth of the manifold tonalities of impressions, values of experiences and shades of sensations. The colors of grayness of the Bukovinian village has already become a blurred memory, but once in a while the summer evening wind makes me recall the Ukrainian dumka that came to me through the open bedroom window and rocked me to sleep.
I used to pass on my experiences from the sensitive perception of the world to my German architecture students. My seminars were called ‘eye openers’. I also tried to open the eyes of my own children. A good moment for that was when, on the way to my atelier in the morning, I walked my daughter and son to kindergarten.
Having left the house, we would first greet the sun: Good morning, Sun! You must be sad and lonely up there in the clouds. The greeting sent to the sun teaches humility and reminds one that life is dependent on nature. Then we would salute a starling named Pipek who sat on a street lamp waiting for us - I told my children about his amazing adventures at bedtime. Walking the streets and passages among the apartment blocks, we would check how the lawn flowers were: some poppies had already wilted, other were just in bloom, and the daisies and dandelions spread themselves thickly on the lawns. The fate of the flowers was merely an excuse to talk about the beauty of life and about passing away. From the left comes the murmur of urban traffic. Out of the blue, the siren of an ambulance began wailing. Obviously, someone had suddenly fallen sick. The squeal of brakes tells us that the cars on the crossroads had stopped; soon after, the vehicles roared back to life – it means that the lights had changed. We talk about how auditory stimuli allow us to perceive that which we cannot see. We wonder whence would come the cheerful trill of Gossiper the bird who, at this time of the day, is chatting away with his companions. We observe the passersby, trying to guess where they are headed: obviously, those with shopping bags are going to shops in the neighborhood, and the festively dressed ladies are most likely on their way to a nearby clinic. Passing by an open kitchen window, we were touched by a trail of the characteristic smell of scrambled eggs and it felt as if we could taste them. We are also curious who is cleaning the windows today and who is painting the apartment. Someone is tinkering in one of the houses as we can hear the humming of a drill. Women are leaning over the windows and balconies on different floors, beating the dust of the sheets and dusters. Some of them seem to be shouting to each other about something. A woman from the third floor dropped her nightdress, and she watches it slowly falling onto the lawn. It looks like an amusing sight, but we tell ourselves that it could have been our mother or grandmother, so we feel sorry for her that she has to walk all the way down…
By perceiving the surroundings with all the senses, children learn about its peculiarities, about its various places and about the interesting citizen initiatives of using the space between the apartment blocks that enliven the gray reality of the neighborhood. The children learn to interpret the meaning of different situations and to associate events, phenomena. By SEEING and HEARING what is going on around them, they develop the ability to understand the LANGUAGE of space and strengthen the ability to notice details. Observation of the neighborhood greenery and of the animals’ behavior taught them to respect nature. The children themselves came up with the idea that flowers should not be picked up, that birds should be fed in winter. A sensitive spirituality prevents ignorance that is the nucleus of intellectual grayness – the grayness that makes life dull. That which we do not perceive will not come into being in our consciousness. Although the attentive way of living is absorbing, troublesome and does not favor haste – it is truly worth living!
The image of the slave from the Egyptian relief might have become a serial product of raw canon if it was not for the stone TEAR below his wide open, frozen eye. The reproduction I saw in some album when I was young made a long-lasting impression on me!
What inspired the sculptor to carve this most tender sign of HUMANITY in those inhuman times when gray people were sent to death by the thousands for the glory of corrupted gods and to multiply the subjects of the masters – not sated with lust for power? Perhaps he became sad over the fate of someone’s son, father, husband brutally wrested from the family nest and noticed in him a feeling and thinking man? Perhaps the sculptor became lost in thought over his own life as a subject and shed this stone tear out of a sudden need to scream? Perhaps in this unconventional way he desired to tell us the truth about SUFFERING that follows in the footsteps of gods, pharaohs, priests, courtiers, warriors as a procession of ages, to burden our memory with the barbaric history of mankind? But we know this truth from our own experience of trying to drown it out and ignore it.
How heroically physical is Michelangelo's understanding of enslavement: the athletic slaves, carved out of marble, flex their muscles to undo the symbolic shackles or they die with dignity whilst standing. They are as beautiful as Apollo, with nary a grimace that would remind the viewer of the fate of the gray, downtrodden people. Their closed eyes seem to say that death is but a dream..
Author: Stefan Papp / pr-controlled.com ©
Illustration: Dying Slave by Michelangelo Buenarroti