Painted by Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008),
Painted in 1951
Latex house paint applied with a roller and brush on canvas, two panels
© Museum of Modern Art, New York
You are merely servants
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Which of you, with a servant ploughing or minding sheep, would say to him when he returned from the fields, “Come and have your meal immediately”? Would he not be more likely to say, “Get my supper laid; make yourself tidy and wait on me while I eat and drink. You can eat and drink yourself afterwards”? Must he be grateful to the servant for doing what he was told? So with you: when you have done all you have been told to do, say, “We are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty.”’
Reflection on the painting
What a huge dose of realism today’s Gospel reading brings. Jesus suggests that we are ‘merely servants’. It sounds rather harsh to tell us that, but what does it actually mean? It isn’t just about being subservient to a master or a boss. No, ‘servant’ means that we have limits. We have limits because we cannot act without our master: limits to our abilities, limits to our achievements, limits to our talents, limits to our generosity… because we are human. It is only when we understand that we are limited and seek to go beyond these limits that we can find God. That is what ultimately brings us freedom: the acceptance of our limits and thriving within them.
So this reading is not about Jesus wanting to enslave us: he is not trying to put us in our place. It is a direct call to humility. It is an invitation for us to be aware of our limits. We actually should treasure these limits. Because of the limits we want to search and seek what is beyond those limits… and that is how we find God.
Artists, in their relentless pursuit of creative expression, stand at the intersection of boundless imagination and the inherent limitations of the human condition. The paradox of their existence lies in their ceaseless quest to transcend boundaries while acknowledging the inescapable confines of their existence. Artists are dream-weavers, conjuring worlds, emotions, and ideas beyond the tangible and the ordinary, yet they are tethered to the earth by the very medium of their craft.
In the realm of painting, the canvas restricts the scope of their vision; in sculpture, the dimensions of the stone or clay constrict their ambitions. Writers are bound by the limitations of language, a finite structure for an infinite range of thoughts. Musicians strive to harness the notes within an auditory spectrum. The actor's body becomes both his instrument and his cage.
So today we just look at a white canvas. The limitations of the canvas are visible and tangible. This is how I look at some of the minimalist art created in the 1950s and 1960s, and particularly at the work of Robert Rauschenberg. Our work, created in 1951, features two white canvasses, painted with a roller of white latex house paint.
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