Great Art is Transcendent

Great Art Is TranscendentThe people who built the Statue of Liberty gave the world a gift. Everyone who comes to New York benefits from it. As do those who see the memorable icon in a movie or on a key chain.

There are few symbols in the world as powerful as that green lady. When people look at her, they don’t see oxidized copper and a museum.

They see freedom.
They see beginning.
They see new life.

Great art is powerful

It goes beyond the mere physical realm; it supersedes the moment.

I wonder if the ancient Jews felt a similar sense of significance when they saw the Second Temple of Jerusalem being rebuilt after the exile.

The rest of the city was still in shambles, but rebuilding the temple was their priority.

The temple was more than just a place of worship and sacrifice; it was an icon of solidarity.

It was hope.

A symbol can be a powerful thing.

A good symbol is powerful, precisely because it doesn’t point to itself.

Great art always points to something else

My friend Jerry used to work with Steve Jobs. Scribbled on the whiteboard in his office is a quote that has always resonated with me:

“Design should never say, ‘Look at me.’ It should always say, ‘Look at this.'”

If a powerful symbol, like the Christian cross or the American flag, becomes fashionable or trendy, it loses its meaning. It was never intended to be “art for art’s sake.”

The same can be said for the swastika or the sickle and hammer — these symbols are powerful (albeit, negatively) not because of what they are, but because of what they represent.

A symbol is a means to an end.

If it points to itself, it becomes arbitrary and loses its significance.

Take a step back

I love Claude Monet‘s paintings (especially the Water Lilies series).

When you see a Monet, you don’t look at the paint. You look between the brushstrokes and beyond the oil paint and canvas. His style is intentionally exaggerated and obscured to elicit in the viewer an emotional feeling.

This is how great art works.

It does something to your soul, makes you feel like you’re actually there for a moment — not because of how it looks, but because of how it makes you feel.

The art isn’t there just to look good. It’s there to make an impression.

So it is with your “art” — the gift that you have to give the world.

It’s not just a piece of work; it’s a symbol of something more.

The artist has a responsibility

If you’re not careful, the gift can focus on the wrong place — that is, the artist. This is tempting for those of us who create. When people recognize our work, it makes us feel fulfilled and significant.

But that was never the intention.

Great art is transcendent. It points to something beyond itself and the one who made it.

This is why the Greeks believed in essences and muses. They knew something that we’ve forgotten: Art describes the invisible world; it hints at the hidden story.

There should be great trepidation and freedom when the artist acknowledges this. There should be a burden that accompanies any creative act. The call to create is both an awesome opportunity and responsibility.

Wield it with caution and appreciation.

What kind of art are you creating? Does it point to something else, something other, something transcendent?

48 thoughts on “Great Art is Transcendent

  1. Tonight I led a round table of six second-grade cub scouts through a recreation of Picasso’s life and “Mains aux Fleurs.” I pray the art they created transcended the round table and it’s permanently mixed in their minds that when they mix red and yellow something beautiful is born and when they present someone with a gift of flowers created on paper the feeling of love transcends.

    Great post, Jeff. Thanks.

  2. Hey Jeff, I’ve never posted something here, Im not sure why… but I always know about your thoughts because my mom reads you…

    I agree with you in many things,

    What kind of art am I making? nowadays I feel like someone who can do something special and is doing just nothing…

    yes I am in a band, our songs point to God, and I am painting a mural with some students…

    but I really feel jammed, because no new song is coming… I m not drawing any more… I want to

    God bless you

  3. I have a difficult time understanding art. I love writing, but I don’t fully grasp the artistic side of it. With that being said, I get what you’re saying here and hope that my own writing reflects love and truth greater than myself – something overwhelmingly transcendent. 

  4. Great art is transcendent alright, and if we are lucky in our art, we get a chance to touch that height and create it;-) All I know, is that to create art itself is to be truly lucky, just for the love of it…
    Thanks for a great post Jeff! You cut through to the heart of many things that I really enjoy considering!

  5. hi Jeff, the quote
    “Design should never say, ‘Look at me.’ It should always say, ‘Look at this.’”  

    was this from Steve Jobs or your friend Jerry. Whose whiteboard?

    thanks Barry

  6. You hooked me with the quote. To me, great design (a space or a building) is almost transparent when its function is true. When the beauty, elegance and functionality of space evokes emotion from its inhabitants it is considered great design. Otherwise it’s just space.

    Great post Jeff. Very inspiring.

  7. I lived in NYC for 18 years, and I swear I’ve never seen the Statue of Liberty except on pictures. Judging from the headshot at the top of this post, I find that the lady’s facial features bear some resemblance to Sean Penn.

  8. Great Post!  I would add that great art captures the imagination and helps us to envision possibilities that we might not have otherwise considered.

  9. I don’t know if my writing does that, but this post makes me want to work harder to ensure that it does 🙂

    (Also, I just saw you’re speaking at Blissdom! Yay!)

  10. I like your ideas here. Very intriguing. 
    Also makes me aware that the project I’m working on right now is not Great Art. Yet it’s important for me to write, and also I believe it will be helpful for people to read.
    So, maybe next time I’ll be aiming for the great art.

  11. I’m reminded of a quote from Batman Begins where Bruce Wayne is talking to Rachel.

    “…as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting”.

    I believe you are right and that great art transcends the artist. For example, we all know the Statue of Liberty, but generally have no clue who the architect was. Lady Liberty is the symbol of freedom, an ideal that is everlasting in the hearts of men.

  12. Great post Jeff. 

    Great art is something that you know when you “read it”, “see it” or “experience it” depending on the medium. The emotional impact of great art is part of makes life worth living. I also agree with your points on the responsibility of the artist. The work needs to be pure or “incorruptible” as ThatGuyKC points out in his comment. It takes unwavering focus to avoid the influence of the market or your fan base to constantly deliver truth in your work.

      1. I just purchase for Kindle. I’m halfway through, and honestly, its slowly changing the way I view things. (Also helped me have a better focus for the eBook).

        Just finished Bird by Bird, On Writing, and Elements of Style for the second time.

        Recommend any others? I’m on a spree.

  13. Art is a form of sharing. Something given with the wrong heart intent: selfishness, pride, etc. is never given fully. It always has strings attached, pulling it back towards the author, instead of compelling it forward to portray its message, whatever form that may take, to the reader. Selfessness, letting art become what it’s supposed to be, is like setting your baby adrift in the Nile. You can only trust it will end up somewhere safe, but to keep it with you is to allow it to surely die or never achieve its purpose. 

    Nice post. Thanks.

    “Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” ― Annie Dillard, The Writing Life 

  14. Great art to me is a humble invitation to see something. It reveals what is hidden, not inside the arrist but inside the veiwer.

    In a way it is a conversation, between the creator and the beholder where nothing is said but everything is understood.

    I would like to do this in the characters i portray as an actor and a writer. I must leave myself for this to happen

    1. Great comments, Geoff! I must say that I was struck by the concept of great art revealing what is hidden in the viewer… you are absolutely right. Thanks for this perspective. 

    2. i agree with i’m also and aspiring actor ,i feel it’s hard to do so in film because its all business .Whether indie or mainstream it just seems to be getting harder and harder to do.Especially the indie crowd i feel ,like alot of them want to get there products out there.So the work screams for attention more so cause its not mainstream

  15. Hey, Jeff, just discovered you blog. I have to say this post, while passionate, disturbed me. I’m wondering how you get this emotion out of Monet. I’ve always found Monet to be an unemotional painter. And I even believe Cezanne said something about Monet being nothing but an eye. Could you elaborate?

  16. I wonder if anyone here thinks that art can have the same essential qualities as a religion?  I was thinking about this recently after going to see a fantastic play that totally lifted me out of myself.  After the play was over, there was a “talkback” for the audience, with several cast members & the playwright on the stage.  The whole experience made me think… we all are together……….all seeking a higher experience than in our day-to-day lives, all opening up with questions (from the heart) and receiving replies (from the heart).

    The whole theater was charged with electro-magnetic  humanity…………shared

    What was bigger than life…………much larger than all of us…….was the synergy of it all.  There was a force greater than all of us, the force of synergy.

    This was so much more satisfying than any time in church, that I thought……art like this could substitute as religion……….for those seeking alternatives.

  17. “Art describes the invisible world; it hints at the hidden story.”  Hi Jeff , Is this your quotation?  I want to cite you correctly.  – Lil

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