Ingmar Bergman

The Artist’s Intent

NOTE | This simple post is dedicated to Aaron & KeriI’ve met many artists [of various persuasions] in my travels, but you two — your lives, artistry, work, talent, endeavors, and ideas — are truly and uniqely inspiring.

Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman once mused:

“I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music…film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence.”

My first introduction to Bergman came in the Fall of 2009, when I attended a sort of retreat for artists in New Hampshire. It was hosted by an independent filmmaker and his growing community of artistic friends. The weekend featured diverse and thought-provoking presentations from poets, musicians, filmmakers, authors, iconographers, and philosophers who were Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, agnostic, and so on.

Ingmar Bergman (directing)Regardless of a participant’s preferred mode of artistic expression, sensibility, philosophical worldview, or faith background, we all had one thing in common: we were interested in exploring the mysterious intersection of art + faith, that is, the end of art. Such exploration often leads to wondering about the artist’s intent.

The filmmaker hosting the retreat opened the weekend by reading a passage from Bergman’s 1960 book Four Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman. The ideas about art and the artist’s intent presented have stuck with me for the last seven years, and the simple purpose of this post is to [finally] share them. Bergman writes:

People ask what are my intentions with my films — my aims. It is a difficult and dangerous question, and I usually give an evasive answer: I try to tell the truth about the human condition, the truth as I see it. This answer seems to satisfy everyone, but it is not quite correct. I prefer to describe what I would like my aim to be. There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed — master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.

Regardless of my own beliefs and my own doubts, which are unimportant in this connection, it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; ‘eternal values,’ ‘immortality’ and ‘masterpiece’ were terms not applicable in his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility. Today the individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation.

The smallest wound or pain of the ego is examined under a microscope as if it were of eternal importance. The artist considers his isolation, his subjectivity, his individualism almost holy. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death. The individualists stare into each other’s eyes and yet deny the existence of each other.

We walk in circles, so limited by our own anxieties that we can no longer distinguish between true and false, between the gangster’s whim and the purest ideal. Thus if I am asked what I would like the general purpose of my films to be, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragon’s head, an angel, a devil — or perhaps a saint — out of stone. It does not matter which; it is the sense of satisfaction that counts.

Regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.

*for more thoughts/quotes from Bergman, see here