Louis Sullivan: The Art of Expression: One

[Note: The text is from Kindergarten Chats, condensed and edited]

Why do you do this? To help you make of yourself an interpreter, a poet. And why should I be a poet? In order that you may evince power of interpretation, and extol poetry in your useful art. And how can I express poetry in my art?

As one expresses poetry in anything–by first living it. For poetry is life. To express life we must know life, and understand it in its bearings. To know the simplicity of all life we must grasp its complexity;we must view it from many angles, envisage its many moods and seeming contrarieties; and to know its complexity we must grasp, with all the power of understanding its deep-down simplicity. To know the soul we must arouse the soul, liberate it and let it face the open and move in the open until it knows not fear.

Nature is ever the background across which man moves as in a drama. So have I taken you to Nature, to show you how our moods parallel her moods; how her problems parallel our problems, to make plain to you what man may read in Nature’s book, to the end that her processes may be our processes: that we may absorb somewhat of her fertility of recourse, her admirable logic, her progression from function into form, her fluency, her lyric quality–her poetic finalities.

Should man do less in satisfying his utilitarian needs! It is the function of the poet, in whatever walk of life, to regard these things, to make them his own; to express them in his work: whatever those works, whatever his special activities may be.

You cannot express, whatever your walk in life, unless you have a system of expression; and you cannot have a system of expression unless you have a prior system of cognate thinking and feeling; and you cannot have a system of thinking and feeling unless you have had a basic system of living.

When all is said and done, the great masterpiece, or the little masterpiece, whatever its kind, is but the condensed expression of such philosophy as is held by the worker who creates it. It stands for his views, his more or less ripened, organized and rounded views of Nature, of Man as an entity in Nature, of his fellow men, of his views and convictions concerning the human mind, the human heart and soul, and the progress and destiny of the race: in short, his philosophy of life.

To assume that man may create a great work without in his own way having held a communion with the flow of life, without having in his own way contemplated humanity–would be to express crudely what is crudely thought. To fancy, languorously, that a man may create a great work by reproducing a Greek temple, or any past vital work, is an example in such crude vacuity of thinking: indeed, the misapplication of the very notion of thinking. It is simply minus-thinking. A great work is, always, a great individual expression; the expression of a single thought or a single mood born of a contemplative, active, clear-sighted creative mind.

For a great work, must be an organism–that is, possessed of a life of its own; an individual life that functionates in all its parts; and which find its variations in expression in the variations of its main function, and in the consequent, continuous systematic variations in form, as the organic complexity of expression unfolds: all proceeding from one single impulse of desire to express our day and our needs: to seek earnestly and faithfully to satisfy those needs. To make our world a pleasant place.

Do not mistake my meaning, nor my attitude towards the great works of the men of the past. None can, I believe, venerate them more sincerely than do I, nor more clearly and gratefully discern their beauty, their worth, their inspiring evidence of what man can do when he wills. Bus such appraisal, such enthusiasm would go to nought were I to stultify both myself and them by denying them their privacy.

For, my lad, beauty has not really departed from the sons of Earth.
Nor is high thinking but a memory of days gone.
Nor is the winsome art of saying done for.
Nor has the power of man forsaken him.
If he has lost them, on his way, he has but to call to them:
They will answer and come gladly.
His spirit will revive.

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