I read somewhere that when people are asked to name something they consider to be great art, da Vinci's Mona Lisa takes the first prize ribbon almost every time. And given the amount of people that pack into the Louvre each day just to catch a glimpse of Ms. Lisa from behind a sea of heads desperate to do the same, it seems da Vinci has a hit on his hands. But why?
I am of the mind that it isn't for daVinci's command of the human form or his mastery of value. Quite simply, Mona has a soul.
Henry Ward Beecher wrote that "Every artist dips his brush in his own soul and paints his nature into his pictures." I think this is the very thing that makes something a "work of art." The technique is just the icing; the soul of the piece is the cake. Canvas, paint, paper, clay, metal, wire, ink, fiber: these are the substrates the artist loves and manipulates into a form. And like the golem of Jewish lore, the artist breathes life into that form with her enthusiasm, pain, insights, joys, triumphs, and faults. Sometimes, the kiss of the artist's soul is only recognizable to the artist; it is hidden away in journals and sketchbooks or supplanted by new, improved "golems." Sometimes, the work grows and becomes something more. It gains a life of its own beyond anything the artist could ever imagine and perhaps ultimately, it is protected by bulletproof glass in the world's premiere museum.
When I make art, I am not looking to create a masterpiece; I am hoping to create a life, an image that has a voice and a presence. The life I craft is not always pretty. In fact, most often it is ordinary, humble, quiet, and unpretentious. Sometimes, it is even ugly. Regardless of appearances, if I am successful, the work will be an extension of myself, a little piece of my soul that I offer up for viewing. Success can be hard to gauge though; Sometimes, the artist may think the soul is missing, that a misstep in technique obilterates the message or meaning. However, others may recognize the soul there even if the artist has given it up for lost. We must be careful not to let vicious inner critics blind us to what we have accomplished in even the most minor of works.
When a child draws, he or she doesn't see the crayon line that is too fat to be a neck, the smudge of jelly that serves as hair, or the arm that bends at an impossible angle. There are no ill-conceived perspectives or ill-proportioned features. There is simply the "thing" and the joy that created it. There is the twinkle in the eyes and the mystery that plays about the mouth. This is what draws us in and fills us up.