The Vikings are Coming! Keep Drawing!

art book of kells


One of the greatest literary and artistic accomplishments of Western civilization is an illuminated Bible created in medieval Ireland called The Book of Kells. It contains some of the most intricate illustration anywhere, despite the fact that it was created at a time when having your town pillaged by Vikings was a very real threat and Adobe Illustrator was not yet invented.

What fascinates me about The Book isn't the beautiful illumination. It's the fact that somebody took the time to create it. Or rather, a large brotherhood of monks spent years to create it.

Someone had to write the book, then go over the words in calligraphy, then draft the drawings, then actually fill them in. The work of creating The Book itself was only a tiny portion of the effort that went into it; every contributor had to be well-trained in the art of illumination. That alone took years.

So much art these days is meant to be consumed and disposed of - advertisements, bestsellers, magazine articles - but The Book of Kells belongs to a different category of creation.

They were doing something so different, so rare, we may not even fully understand the mindset that motivated it anymore. It was a way to conceive of value that we no longer practice.

Kids These Days...

I think, in modern times, there have been very few such works, performed meticulously for the love of the art itself. Commercialism is the order of the day. Even fine art is often created to be sold to collectors. We have imposed a requirement on all people that they "create value," with the assumption that value means money, so "Being an Artist" carries with it the implication that you sell your art, which carries the implication that you make art to sell it, not because there is some truth behind it.

If you don't sell it, you starve, so our society selects for artists who make art that sells.

Obviously there are exceptions. Memorials are still commissioned, and there are artists who defy the social pressure, but by and large, most art is commercial, and much of it is disposable, temporary. 

What artist could create a Book of Kells in these times?

Well, J.R.R. Tolkien created something of the literary equivelant, I think. The Lord of the Rings is a story told for its own sake, a world created because it was necessary and beautiful. The depth of description in Middle Earth goes far beyond what was necessary for the telling of the story. That is why the story gives the impression of sub-creation, an alternative living reality, that you could walk off the path of the main characters and still find the world behind the page. Even though Tolkien never takes us into the eastern deserts, we know there are stories there. They feel as real as Frodo and the Shire.

Why did he do that? Why bother?

Not because he was being paid for it, or he was seeking fame. Those kind of motivations cannot empower that kind of dedication.

The Artist's Struggle

So this is what artists struggle with: how to be true to their art without selling out. How to survive without writing or painting or sculpting to a formula.

I think the art that moves us is created despite the need to survive. It helps us see beyond the basic day-to-day, to a higher existence that is unconcerned with trivialities like income, or even life and death. Art like that deals with eternal, universal truths. To sit carefully coloring in a Bible when you should be running from Viking invaders, fortifying your town, or focusing on survival is perhaps madness, or the truest form of inspiration.

To breathe and remain calm when you should be collapsing in fatigue; to stand your ground when you should be taking a corporate kickback; to run into the heart of the storm, convinced of the truth of your purpose, not caring if the world recognizes it but determined to give it life regardless; to put your life on the line, either immediately or in the form of self-imposed poverty, in the name of truth; that is true art. And it is the essence of integrity and therefore of the Warrior Spirit.

I never understood all that until just this moment. This is what A has been saying all along about her art, and I never fully understood. I now see that it has implications for me as a writer as well, and the kind of stories, blog posts, and articles I write.