By Kenneth Steinbach
Two winters ago, my daughter Harper and I drove south for a show of my work at a small college in Illinois. The day after the busyness of the exhibit and speaking events, we ventured into St. Louis to recover. A fresh layer of snow that had fallen through the night covered the rolling prairie. Arriving in the city, we found it virtually deserted, including the art museum that we toured mostly alone.
As Harper and I turned a corner in the Neoclassical building, we came upon one of the museum’s signature works: The Breaking of the Vessels by Anselm Kiefer, a several-ton sculpture of enormous lead books and other items on a massive steel bookshelf, amid a field of broken glass on the floor. I had shown images of the work to classes many times, but had never seen it in person. It was a stunning experience. I tried to give Harper my standard lecture on the work, but she would have none of it, preferring instead to just look. So we did, for long moments.
The title of Kiefer’s monumental work refers to a Jewish creation myth of the same name. Part of The Breaking of the Vessels narrative suggests that in order for God to create the universe, God first had to withdraw and create a space for it to exist. The sculpture evokes that moment, as the cosmos is born in a colossal shattering, filling the floor with a sea of shards both dangerous and beautiful. The monstrous folded lead sheet books, each far too heavy for humans to handle, sit silently, waiting and unopened. Are these books of things yet to come, events that will fill this created space? Or are they the secrets of what has been lost as God has withdrawn? The work leaves us wondering.
At that time I was well into a series of artist interviews which became the foundational research for a book on artistic practice. My research question was this: How do artists do what they do? The experience with the Kiefer work followed me home that day and has hovered at the edge of my thoughts through the remaining interviews and research as I have tried to sort out the enigma that is artistic practice.
Part of this research has also led me to St. Ignatius, the fifteenth-century founder of the Jesuits. Ignatius established a contemplative method of spirituality that is outlined in his Spiritual Exercises, a four-week series of spiritual meditations often undertaken by those who are looking for spiritual transformation. Many friends who count themselves both believers and artists are drawn to Ignatius, finding kinship between the Exercises and their artistic practice.
Ignatian spirituality is marked by ceaseless inquiry, a challenging of our presuppositions, and a shedding of attachments to unhelpful directions. One of the central dynamics of the Exercises is a back and forth between desolation (spiritual emptiness) and consolation (spiritual comfort). Our journey to God moves between this polemic of understanding and disorientation. We are constantly wiping the chalkboard clean and starting again. Fueled by dedicated prayer and humble listening, the process works to free us from “spirits” that would distract us from our relationship with God. This journey, filled with ambiguity, is sustained by the belief that God rewards these labors in ways that are unique to the individuals and their circumstances.
Artists, of course, get this. The rhythms of the Exercises resonate deeply with studio practice. Anyone who has spent extended time trying to make a coherent artwork, or exhibit, or career, knows well the ebb and flow of the process. It requires a constant shedding of unhelpful attachments–ideas that may be good and valid, but incompatible with where the work is headed. Participating in a practice requires frequent examination and deconstruction of our ideas in order to arrive at something better. We make an object on Friday afternoon that we are certain to our bones is completed and perfect and by 10:00 a.m. Monday is painted over, and we are once again facing an empty canvas. This process requires perseverance in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty, sustained by the hope that the work will emerge in the end.
As a teacher and a maker, I see rich and authentic ideas emerge from processes that are grounded in habits of dedicated labor, wrestling with materials, and curiosity driven research and inquiry. I am skeptical of perspectives that suggest that we make our best work when we wait until we feel creative, or are in a moment of effortless flow, or feel like God is calling the work into being. I am skeptical in part because such reasons can be used to insulate the work from criticism about quality or relevance, and in part because they allow so much of the process to remain outside the bounds of process and our own embodied experience.
While both artistic practice and the Spiritual Exercises share remarkably similar methods, they both also begin with the baseline requirement that the individual make intentional space for them. Trying to shoehorn either of them into an overfilled life is pointless. This requirement is not just about carving out time (though neither artistic practice nor participation in the Exercises will happen without dedicated time) but about creating a space within one’s thinking for what might yet be discovered. It’s necessary to withdraw from the notion that we can ever be sure of what we will make, or find, or reflect when we work in the studio. Making space and allowing for uncertainty are necessary forms of humility.
The Breaking of the Vessels, suggests that God’s withdrawal created a primordial space full of unpredictability, chaos, unknown and unknowable precepts, and danger. While an imperfect metaphor, it is important to affirm these as part of our experience as makers. Too often, I think, we expect the process to be free from such challenges, a space with no real risks or uncomfortable questions. Ignatius’ view is that these challenges are the very stuff that cause growth and lead us to our more authentic selves. This practice works as well for the artist.
Some respectful silence can help us see what is really important too.
Kenneth Steinbach is an artist and educator who has taught at the university level for 22 years. Recently he has been researching the habits and strategies of mid-career visual artists for a book on creative practice. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife Kari, a freelance theater director.