A work of art can only come from the interior of man. Art is the form of the image formed upon the nerves, heart, brain and eye of man.
My whole life has been spent walking by the side of a bottomless chasm, jumping from stone to stone. Sometimes I try to leave my narrow path and join the swirling mainstream of life, but I always find myself drawn inexorably back toward the chasm's edge, and there I shall walk walk until the day I finally fall into the abyss.
The way one sees is also dependent upon one's emotional state of mind. This is why a motif can be looked at in so many ways, and this is what makes art so interesting.
In my art I have tried to explain to myself life and its meaning. I have also tried to help others to clarify their lives.
Just as Leonardo da Vinci studied human anatomy and dissected corpses, so I try to dissect souls.
When I paint, I never think of selling. People simply fail to understand that we paint in order to experiment and to develop ourselves as we strive for greater heights. (Edvard Munch)
The Frieze of Life
What follows is an imagined conversation between Edvard Munch and his friend, Max Reinhardt.
Max Reinhardt: You said that we should no longer paint interiors with men reading and women knitting, that instead we should paint living people who breathe, who feel, who suffers and who love, did not you?
Edvard Munch: Yes, I did say that. I think that it is not enough to paint a sort of idealized picture, having someone pose, as if standing in front of a camera about to have a photograph taken. A painting is not a photograph.
MR: Why do you say that? It is the artist's task to show reality, is not it?
EM: Not to show reality, for what does that mean? It is real to show a worker standing by his bench, holding his tools and looking at his work, when in reality, as you say, he would hardly ever stand so. And besides, I do not think art deals with reality, at least not in any simplistic sense.
MR: Then what does art deal in?
EM: IN something larger than reality.
MR: What is bigger than reality?
EM: Life. Life is a bigger entity than any reality you can see, or take a photograph of, or even paint, come to that.
MR: Then what do you paint?
EM: Better ask why do you paint, and begin from there, do not you think?
MR: Alright, why do you paint? Why does anyone paint?
EM: First of all, I have to say that I can not speak for others. I can not really tell you why others paint. All I can do is say why I think I paint, and then let you make what you will of that.
MR: Why do you say, why I think I paint? Do not you know why you paint?
EM: I think I know, but a psychologist might give you a different answer to the one I give.
MR: But it is you I am interested in, your reasons for painting, not some others opinions of why you paint.
EM: That is well said, there are those who say they know more about my paintings than I know myself. They may be right in their opinions, I can not always find better reasons than they find. But, as critics of my work, I only quote the poet, Alexander Pope, when he says, 'Let such teach others who themselves excel', and censorship freely who have written well ', and while he was talking about the literary form of art rather than the more visual, the principle is the same.
An industry has grown up out of our brush strokes; one that has little to do with art and more to do with exploiting what artists do.
MR: Well then, I will ask you to tell me, without the vicarious comments of the critic who purports to know this and that about what you paint and why you paint it.
EM: I paint, I can not speak for others, but I paint to find out something more about my condition than I knew before I wet the first brush and began to paint.
MR: What do you find out? What is there to find out in that medium?
EM: The world.
MR: You learn a lot from your art then?
EM: I do. My art is who I am, you see. When you look at one of my paintings, you are cutting through a segment of my life.
MR: But then you are saying that your art speaks, are you?
EM: In ways that tell more than words can relate, for words – language, is bound by laws that have little to do with the human condition. When you write a sentence, you are limited by several things, I think you must agree.
MR: Things? What things?
EM: Well, at an elementary level, you are bound by letters, by words, by sentences. You are bound by what can and can not be said in language, are you not?
MR: That is true. What of music? Is the composer bound by such laws?
EM: He most certainly is, but they are not the same laws, of course, and the interpretation of his music is left to the listener without the medium of language to confine and conform.
The musician is bound by the notes that can be heard by the human ear, in that range and in no other, and although there is little equivalent in music of the word or the sentence to limit him, the musician is suddenless bound by laws that They are not found in the visual arts, excepting one.
MR: And that is?
EM: The plane in which he works; if he paints it is in the two dimensional, if he chisels marble, it is in three such.
Where all art is released from these various confines is in the receptor – in the being that sees, or hears or Touches.
MR: But then he is bound again in trying to say what he feels, about how he is affected by the art he takes some part in as the onlooker or listener, if you prefer.
EM: Precisely, and it is in this attempt in words to say what reasons have made me paint this way rather than another that the critic errs.
MR: Then who can say?
EM: No one can say with any certainty, for that is what words give – they apportion an amount of surety where there is none.
One person looks at my paintings, and then is told by what he repeatedly reads about what he has seen, told what to think he has seen, and in that telling, and that that thinking lies the error. Art is only truly that to the person experiencing it.
One man comes from the joys of lovemaking, one from the despair of bereavement, let us say, yet another comes from his place of work, or from his home, whatever that may be like, and yet we persist in saying that this art means such and such to all, as if ten men were but the one, as if a million were one. Art is whatever it is at the point of experiencing it.
MR: So how do you hope to convey your feelings to the person looking at what you have painted?
EM: I do not hope anything. I sincerely represent a feeling on canvas. That one man comes to my own experience is fortuitous indeed, though I fail to see how that can really be so.
MR: But if a person is able to express himself in those terms in which you have expressed yourself when painting, then sure there is some congruence, is there not?
EM: How can there be? Have we not just agreed that once an utterance is made in words, then something is lost, or say that something that is essentially made true, but how can that be reality when it is defined and confounded by words that adhere, as we have said, to laws that are not at one with feelings – real feelings. That is the difficulty of saying why I paint, and what my painting means. In so doing, I must needs use words, and that takes away any simulacrum of reality.
MR: But let us still talk about what you ostensibly say your paintings are about, even as you have now admitted that words fail you.
EM: They do fail me, but they do not fail my art.
MR: Why not?
EM: Because my art expresses itself in a non-verbal form.
MR: But when someone wants to talk about how your art has affected them, they use language.
EM: They are affected by my art in ways they can not express.
MR: Then how can they know how they have been affected, if they can not express it in the only way they have?
EM: You mistake yourself, my friend, if you think that language is the only way we can express ourselves.
MR: Well then, let me put it this way, using language, speaking, to someone who can understand that language is the best way we have of expressing ourselves.
EM: Again, you are mistaken, my friend.
MR: How so? What other way is there of communicating?
EM: I am surprised you can ask such a question when you use ways other than language to communicate most of the time.
MR: What other way?
EM: The non-verbal way.
MR: Which is?
EM: Let me ask you a question; how does a mother communicate her love for her newly born child? That child is not yet able to understand one syllable of the language her mother speaks, and yet the child understands that it is loved by its mother. Is that not a fact?
EM: Then how is that? How has the mother communicated her love?
MR: By the things she does, I suppose.
EM: You may say by the things she does, and the manner in which she does them, do not you think?
MR: By her smiling at the child when she feeds her, you mean?
EM: That is certainly one way in the myriad of ways a loving mother communicates her love for her child.
MR: But there are others.
EM: Many others, and there is one way in particular.
MR: Which is?
EM: Which is her way of being.
MR: Being what? You will have to elaborate.
EM: I thought I might. Let us say that she expresses herself through everything she does, and everything she does is an expression of her love for her child. Can you not see the truth of that?
MR: I can, yes, but how does the child understand what is being communicated?
EM: By being her child, again, by being.
The mother conveys her love for her child in everything she does, and the child understands that she is beloved even if she can not say that word, 'love' or understand what it is.
MR: But what has this got to do with how your art affects me?
EM: Because it expresses itself by being.
MR: Again, you will have to elaborate.
EM: Bear with me, my friend. You stand before my painting, 'The Scream' and you look at it for some time. You can not be but affected by it.
MR: But I might not be able to say how it has affected me.
EM: That is most probably true, but it has affected you.
MR: How, if I can not say how?
EM: Remember the child looking up at her mother; she knows she is loved, even though she can not say so in words.
MR: So what you are saying, are you not, is that words – language – is not enough.
EM: It is n ever enough. The ways my painting have affected you go too deep for words. You can not find the words to express how you have been affected.
MR: Then how do I know I have been affected by your work?
EM: Because you are human, from a broadly similar culture and of a similar age. How can you not be affected?
MR: But I ask again: how can I know, how can I relate it?
EM: You can not, not really. But your desire to tell others has nothing to do with my art, and everything to do with the fact that you are a social being, you need to tell, to express your feelings to others.
MR: But you have said that I can not, that I have not words to help me.
EM: That is true, you have not. What you have is your ability to be.
MR: So my need to talk about how your art has affected me is purely a product of my culture, is it?
EM: Yes, it is, and your language. First, you have lived in this industrial age of ours, and all you have been taught in the course of your life is that everything of value should be capable of being quantified, put down in words or spoken about to others.
MR: But that is normal, is not it, to have that need?
EM: It is for you, and for me, but for the being you really are, your soul, it is not necessary. In fact, I would go further and say that your propensity to want quantify and elucidate has led us to the impasse we find ourselves at.
MR: What impasse?
EM: The impasse we have come to that has brought us through wars, through all kinds of violence, through hatred and prejudice – that impasse.
MR: And you think it is language that has bought us to it, do you?
EM: Language, certainly, and its properties within us.
MR: Which properties?
EM: Those that come with language – faith in words, and a loss of faith in ourselves as human beings. Everything we say and do proclaims it; everything except art, that is.
MR: So you think art expresses itself in a sort of way that is prior to our attaining or acquiring language, do you?
EM: I most certainly do.
MR: But why, how?
EM: Because we enter a world of images, not of language. We are born without language, are we not?
MR: Yes, but we soon learn how to speak, do not we?
EM: We do, and in so doing, we are being inculcated into a civilization and its ways, its social mores – we are learning much more than language. We are learning how to be, and what to be.
MR: And so you think art, your art, speaks to a sort of me that is pre-lingual, if I can say such a thing.
EM: All art does so. It communicates to you in elementary ways that go beyond words, but it communicates to you suddenless. And, sincemore, because it communicates in a non-verbal sense, it acts more deeply upon you than it would have it to be merely a form of verbal language.
MR: But what of art that uses language? What of a Shakespeare play? Does not Hamlet speak to us who watch and listen?
EM: It does, most certainly, but it does so in ways that are different from those ways though which visual art expresses itself.
MR: But it is no less art for that, I think.
EM: No less art, no, it is a different form of art; it is a way that is more culture specific, as it is language specific.
MR: But surely those failures shown to us in plays such as Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear – those are not specifically culturally specific ways of behaving, are they? They are quite universal. Is not jealousy a universal emotion?
EM: We have come to think it is, but I think you will find it too is a product of who we are and what we are.
MR: But I hope you are not saying that there are people who feel no jealousy. I can not believe that.
EM: And nor can I. What I am saying is that in our culture, we have made jealousy functional, or say it has become so because of the utility society gains from it.
MR: What utility?
EM: Jealousy is a part of desire, is it not?
MR: A part, yes, but a perverse part, surely?
EM: We have reinvented it in to control it, but it has its part to play in the way we live, I think you will agree.
MR: What part can it play?
EM: My dear friend, we live in a world in which the Earth and its treasures are unequally divided. Can you not see that we were not to have this propensity to be jealous, the world of commerce and trade would not turn have so smoothly or so quickly as it does?
MR: But we punish those who become jealous, do not we? Is Othello not mock for his insane jealousy?
EM: He most certainly is, but would be so confused if what he coveted was another king's land or property. Shakespeare shows us the green God jealousy for what it is and how we treat those who use it unwisely. The world is full of stories of those who envy and who acquire; it is only those who behave in such ways that attract moral reprobation that are attacked. In its other forms, it is lauded, is it not?
MR: In what other forms?
EM: Why, in its competitive spirit, by us forever wanting to be what we are not. By us forever wanting to be ambitious; which is no more or less than a socially acceptable form of a kind of jealousy. Watch Shakespeare again, and learn what is acceptable in our society and what is not.
My art makes no such bold challenges to your faith, but challenges you suddenheless, I think.
MR: But what kind of challenges? How can I be challenged if I can not express myself so in language?
EM: The mistake you make is by imagining that the only way to express yourself is through language, or through art.
MR: What other ways are there?
EM: Merely by being. Did Gandhi say, 'Be the change you want to see in the world!'?
MR: Yes, I believe he did say that.
EM: Well then, being the change you want to see in the world is a way of self expression that does not rely only on words, but on being.
MR: How can I change who I am?
EM: Do you know who you are? Do you know what you are?
MR: I should hope so.
EM: There you are again hoping. Do not hope – be! Any change that comes to the way we liv our lives will not come merely by hopping it does, do not you agree?
MR: Well, I think we must start by hopping.
EM: I can not agree. Hoping is idealizing, whereas needs to happen is more practical. Change needs to begin, rather than be hoped for. If you hope for something, you are doing something more or less akin to wanting someone to begin. Being the change is starting the change, and if change is to happen, it has to begin somewhere, do not you agree?
MR: Yes, I suppose it must start somewhere. It's just that I always imagine it starting somewhere else and then taking hold and spreading like wildfire.
EM: But if it must start somewhere, why not with you?
MR: Because I am only one person.
EM: But one person can be a symbol for the whole world of people, can it not? What happens to you happens to millions of others, does it not? You are exploited by greed – your own greed and the greed of others, are you not?
MR: It is hard to say I am exploited by myself. We usually think we are exploited by others, do not we.
EM: Yes, we do, and that is our first error in thinking about change. Someone is doing something to us, yes, but really, our systems are so pervasive, so omnipotent, so real in our minds that we take on their values, make them our own, internalize them and then identify with them.
Being the change you want to see is to look at everything you do and ask yourself if you are doing it voluntarily, really voluntarily, or are you acting out of motives that are not your own, are motivated foisted upon you by the status quo.
When you act, are you acting in an original sense, or are you merely copying? That is why my art is so important to me, and why all art is so important to the world of people, because it signifies a person acting originally and creatively.
What is creativity but a way of acting originally, of having possibly non-original thoughts coalesce in ways that are absolutely original to you. When you create, you become original, you stand alone and you stand out.
If you want a change, you must want to be it, surely. You must really want it, for if you do not really want it, it probably means it is not of you and you are not of it. Being the change is the change being you, which is nothing more than being creative with your whole being.
If you can do that, you can certainly escape from the shackles that bind you. They may be invisible, but they are no less real for that. You must be yourself in a real way in order to become the change. Can you see that?
MR: I think so. You are saying that I am a product of my time and the way I am required to be, are not you?
EM: Yes, I am. Even that realization is substantial. We hardly ever come to that point. We should, if we look at what we do, examine everything we do and say, even everything we think.
MR: Do you really think it is necessary to examine our thought? Surely those are our own, are not they?
EM: You think so. Think about anything g you care to think about and you will find it has the stamp, even the seal of approval from those interests that would have you act in ways beneficial to them.
You can not help thinking in those ways, I think, but you can and must become aware of them and once you are aware then you can alter them, you can alter your way of habitually thinking about yourself.
Tat is the first real step to changing; becoming aware of the source of your thoughts.
MR: I think you must have become aware of who you are and what you think, and why you think in the ways you do.
EM: Why do you think that?
MR: Because you can express yourself through your art, which is yours and yours alone.
EM: But are you saying that everything is painted expresses originality?
MR: Yes, I suppose I am.
EM: A lot of art is done to sell, selling it being the way success is apportioned and considered, and in targeting a buyer or a market of buyers, the artist fails in what it does, fails in being original, fails in expressing something in a way that is unique to him. Real art expresses only the artist who created it. If it expresses anything else, it is either thought to do by those who look at the art, who judge it art.
Art should express something that can not be expressed in any other way, should it not? We have already agreed that it can not be expressed in words, that words fail utterly and miserably. Art is that which can not express itself in any other way, is it not?
MR: Yes, I think it is.
EM: Then if it is so, it must be original, must it not, and to be truly original is to be truly creative. The be creative is to change something within oneself, to express an idea that does not copy other ideas but rather synthesizes from existing ones.
There are those who say that any text has meaning only in reference to other texts. While that is unduly true of words in texts, it is not necessarily true of visual art, or at least let me say it is not true of any art that comes from the non-verbal, and expresses itself and its artist in ways that can not be hijacked by any authority higher than the individual.
To be the change you want to see, be that individual, thinking in ways that are not a part of a text elsewhere, and in ways that do not have meaning except in reference to other texts or other meanings. Let those meanings be yours alone, not expressed by language – that way quickly and easily becomes tainted by other, 'superior' texts, which are not your own but are those put there by others. Be the change you want to see by giving meaning to your own self rather than merely standing as a mirror for those meanings that originate elsewhere. Be yourself, in a real sense, rather than in a way that is sanctioned and approved by others. That is the test of art, if anything is, art is so by virtue of it not having a meaning other than the original one given to it at its point of creation. As the first stroke of the brush is contemplated, that is the point at which creativity begins. It is not dependent upon language, and potentially can not take its meaning from other language – texts, for in those other texts that reside the control others have over you.
MR: What I must do then, is to be creative, original?
EM: Yes, after all, there are only certain ways of being individual.
MR: And those are?
EM: Well, the shadow you cast is yours and yours alone, is it not?
MR: Surely, yes.
EM: What about the sight of the sun as it sets, throwing its light across a stretch of water, a lake, let us say.
MR: Anyone may see that. How does that signify anything original in anyone?
EM: Think about it. You stand at the edge of a sheet of water, a lake, and watch the sun setting in the west. Is the light thrown across the water to your feet, not yours and yours alone?
MR: Why is it mine and mine alone? Surely anyone standing next to will see the same shaft of sunlight, will they not?
EM: Again, I would ask you to think about it. Will they see the same or will they see the sunlight reflected in their particular direction, or in yours?
MR: I see what you mean. They will see it in their particular direction, of course.
EM: But in both cases, with the shadow and the shaft of sunlight, it is the sun allotting you a portion of individuality, is it not?
MR: Yes, it is.
EM: Whereas when you create something new, it is yours and yours alone, is it not?
MR: Yes it is.
EM: Being creative is the only way I know of being truly creative.
MR: And so we must strive to be creative, then, if we would be considered as individuals rather than merely one of the herd?
EM: Yes, I think we must. Someone once said that life without examination is not worthy of the name. To be truly alive, we must strive to create, and sometimes then we may solve a lot of our problems, and in so doing, solve others' problems, even the planet's, which are quite our own, though we do not consider them our own most of the time.
MR: I now see what you mean about being the change you want to see in the world.