In the last narrative scene of Andrei Tarkovsky's majestic film Andrei Rublev we are swept onto a desolate landscape; the artist-monk Rublev cradles the very young bell maker Boriska in his arms––a 15th century Russian pieta––consoling him with the first words he has spoken in many years. Boriska, the son of a bell maker, is prostrated by grief, by the fear he's hidden, by the release of pent-up tension: he has directed the work on casting a great bell for months, claiming his father had passed along the secret to make it, but this wasn't true, he was relying on his bit of knowledge and his own instincts; he took on this enormous task, knowing he would lose his life if he failed.
Leading up to the final scene was a remarkable sweep of camera work, high over a Bruegel-like landscape, busily peopled with workers and townspeople coming to see the raising of the great bell; the camera moves across the landscape toward the scaffolding and ends by looking down into it where the bell is being lifted. By showing us this enormous effort at raising and moving the bell, Tarkovsky has emphasized its importance, which is then made even more clear by the rising tension: will the bell ring, or will it be a failure?
What is making art, after all, but a huge gamble, a leap of faith, such as that of the young caster of bells? We never really know if our work has merit, even if it achieves worldly success, but we must carry on regardless. There is a brilliant statement on uncertainty from Willem de Kooning, in an interview with Harold Rosenberg, which I used as a lesson for my students. He imagines himself making a sphere without using a ruler or other instruments:
De Kooning: If you yourself made a sphere, you could never know if it was one. That fascinates me. Nobody ever will know it. It cannot be proven, so long as you avoid instruments. If I made a sphere and asked you, 'Is it a sphere' you would answer, 'How should I know?' I could insist that it looks like a perfect sphere. But if you looked at it, after awhile you would say, 'I think it's a bit flat over here.' That's what fascinates me––to make something I can never be sure of, and no one else can either. I will never know, and no one else will ever know.
Rosenberg: You believe that's the way art is?
De Kooning: That's the way art is.