L7 Importance of Fine Arts

Tools For A New Political Economy

The Importance of Fine Arts

With respect to activism, socially engaged art can have a significant impact not only in raising awareness around certain issues, but also engaging community in participatory solutions (Nato Thompson has documented many such efforts). Artistic self-expression, participation and appreciation is also an effective way to nourish the Playful Heart dimension of being within the context of Integral Lifework. But I also believe art has a much more significant role in our spiritual life and cultural evolution, as hinted at by many writers, thinkers and creatives over the centuries.

(Excerpted from Art, Spirit & Consciousness)

I would posit there is a certain something offered by creative genius that penetrates our senses to the very core of our being, and shapes our personal evolution in unexpected ways. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Wassily Kandinsky offers a specific term for this impact. He calls it “Stimmung,” the power of art to capture the essence of something, which in turn evokes a strong response in those who encounter the art. Kandinsky explains that when art has Stimmung, it offers “the artistic divination” of the subject’s inner spirit. He further suggests that, when people are open to it, Stimmung can have transformative effects – stimulating beauty, harmonizing emotions, feeding the spirit and elevating the soul. I suspect this is why the call to artistic expression, that “inner need” that compels artists to create, is so strongly felt. It is our soul communicating the intuited essence of something with other souls, a fundamental drive to connect our innermost Self with the Universe and with other motes of consciousness, a yearning for unity and transcendence.

Integral thinkers who have attempted to map artistic expression to consciousness and spirituality – or articulate the relationship between them in some way – have come to some interesting conclusions. Sri Aurobindo frequently alluded to art in his writings as a revelation and expression of the soul and the essence of things, and as a means through which humanity can encourage its own spiritual evolution. As he writes in The National Value of Art: “Between them music, art and poetry are a perfect education for the soul; they make and keep its movements purified, self-controlled, deep and harmonious. These, therefore, are agents which cannot be profitably neglected by humanity on its onward march....” And later in the same, “A little of this immortal nectar poured into a man's heart transfigures life and action. The whole flood of it pouring in would lift mankind to God. This too Art can seize on and suggest to the human soul, aiding it in its stormy and toilsome pilgrimage.” For Aurobindo, who himself wrote poetry, creative expression had a critical role in both seeking and understanding the spiritual truths within, and in shaping our spiritual evolution.

Jean Gebser also saw art as revealing the secret, spiritual structure of things. He observed in The Ever Present Origin how artists of his era were breaking out of cages of dualistic, rationalistic thought and introducing a more unitive sense of being into their work, in particular by freeing themselves from linear concepts of time. For Gebser, this freedom from rigid constructs, this “breaking of the at-once” into artistic expression, demonstrated an emerging integral consciousness; it confirmed that a latent spiritual reality was working in and through human consciousness to help us transcend self-limiting perspectives. In this way, Gebser asserted that art can render our soul, our spiritual origin, increasingly transparent to us. As Gebser writes regarding Cézanne in The Invisible Origin (Journal of Conscious Evolution): “This participation in the infinite that contains and irradiates everything like the origin – if not identical with it – is genuine nearness to the origin: the harmony of human and universe, the overcoming of the dualism of the creator, the painter, and the created, the picture.”

In Meetings with Remarkable Men, G.I.Gurdjieff makes an interesting observation about spiritual teachers. To paraphrase, he says that someone’s understanding and integration of any spiritual teaching is dependent on the teacher’s maturity and development – it is the teacher’s mastery of spiritually being that transmits the most important content, not their words. I think this applies equally to art, in that the impact in both a spiritual and aesthetic sense is influenced by the skill and spiritual depth of the artist, and a more profound resonance can be achieved when the artist is particularly gifted and allows the artistic muse to possess them completely. Even so, this does not mean that the artists themselves must of necessity be spiritually evolved…just potent vessels of transmission. In fact it seems quite rare to find someone who is both spiritually and artistically advanced. Perhaps we can find hints of this in the music of Hildegaard of Bingen, the poetry of Hafiz, the paintings of Fugai Ekun and the works of a handful of others. And at the other end of the spectrum, there are certainly spiritually evolved folks who have little artistic skill or interest. So, on the whole, there seems little correlation between personal spiritual evolution and artistic genius, which again reinforces the idea that great works of art that resonate with the depths of our soul – and even inspire us to grow and change – do not of necessity issue from spiritual masters. Consider a work of art that inculcates a more compassionate worldview and challenges us to change – a book like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, for example. Or art that evokes a sense of awe and wonder about the Universe and its many possible forms of consciousness, such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or art that sends our heart soaring with intimate longing, such as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Were Barber, Kubrick and Lee especially evolved or enlightened human beings? Perhaps in some respects they were, but if they are really like diviners and soothsayers, they didn’t need to be. They were simply channeling something that was both an essential spark of their humanity and a universal spiritual truth.

Among the many who have speculated on the intersection of art, spirit and consciousness, a few come to mind who offer some helpful opinions. Hegel expounded frequently on the topic, and from his lectures in Jena we have these insights:

“Art, in its truth, is closer to religion – the elevation of the world of art into the unity of the Absolute Spirit. In the world of art each individual entity gains a free life of its own through beauty. Yet the truth of individual spirits is in their being one element in the movement of the whole. Absolute spirit knowing itself as absolute spirit: this absolute spirit is itself the content of art, which is only the self-production of itself, as self-conscious life reflected in itself. In art, this individual self, this one, is only a particular self, the artist – but the enjoyment on the part of others is the selfless universal intuition (Anschauung) of beauty.”

In Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung as translated by R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp), he has much to say on the topic as well:

“Genius, then, consists, according to our explanation, in the capacity for knowing, independently of the principle of sufficient reason, not individual things, which have their existence only in their relations, but the Ideas of such things, and of being oneself the correlative of the Idea, and thus no longer an individual, but the pure subject of knowledge. Yet this faculty must exist in all men in a smaller and different degree; for if not, they would be just as incapable of enjoying works of art as of producing them; they would have no susceptibility for the beautiful or the sublime; indeed, these words could have no meaning for them. We must therefore assume that there exists in all men this power of knowing the Ideas in things, and consequently of transcending their personality for the moment, unless indeed there are some men who are capable of no aesthetic pleasure at all. The man of genius excels ordinary men only by possessing this kind of knowledge in a far higher degree and more continuously. Thus, while under its influence he retains the presence of mind which is necessary to enable him to repeat in a voluntary and intentional work what he has learned in this manner; and this repetition is the work of art. Through this he communicates to others the Idea he has grasped. This Idea remains unchanged and the same, so that aesthetic pleasure is one and the same whether it is called forth by a work of art or directly by the contemplation of nature and life. The work of art is only a means of facilitating the knowledge in which this pleasure consists. That the Idea comes to us more easily from the work of art than directly from nature and the real world, arises from the fact that the artist, who knew only the Idea, no longer the actual, has reproduced in his work the pure Idea, has abstracted it from the actual, omitting all disturbing accidents. The artist lets us see the world through his eyes. That he has these eyes, that he knows the inner nature of things apart from all their relations, is the gift of genius, is inborn; but that he is able to lend us this gift, to let us see with his eyes, is acquired, and is the technical side of art.”

Who else might we include? Too many to quote, really. But here are a few more, including some well-known artists and thinkers:

“Art is not an end in itself. It introduces the soul into a higher spiritual order, which it expresses and in some sense explains.” – Thomas Merton, from No Man is an Island

“Every man who steeps himself in the spiritual possibilities of his art is a valuable helper in the building of the spiritual pyramid which will some day reach to heaven.” – Wassily Kandinsky, from Concerning the Spiritual in Art

“I don't know whether I believe in God or not. I think, really, I'm some sort of Buddhist. But the essential thing is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer.” – Henri Matisse

“It's not about what it is made of nor how it is made, it's about inspiration of function that renders and touches the soul, which makes craft ‘art’. Craft is based on functionality, and spirituality is the basis of art.” – Jacques Vesery, from his artist statement.

“We believe that the teyotl or wave of life is at the core of imagination and the creative impulse, the driving force in nature and human evolution, the seed of eternal transformation.” – Juan Javier Pescador & Gabrielle Pescador, from their artist statement.

To conclude, then, I believe it is possible to subjectively confirm artistic inspiration as spiritual in nature, just as many artists, mystics and philosophers report it to be. We can also say that from this ineffable spiritual font – whether via artistic muse or mystical peak experience – many diverse and wonderful expressions have manifested spirit as created reality. And when we encounter such art, these emanations evoke a connection between emotion and intellect, between a felt sense of intuition and conceptual insight, and between soul and mind. Within these communications, different states and stages of perception-cognition flow into and out of existence, inviting art to participate in consciousness, and consciousness to participate in art. So from one perspective spirit energizes art, which then energizes consciousness. And from another perspective consciousness energizes spirit, which then energizes art. And so on in countless entanglements. And when we approach the artistic process in this way, we begin to touch upon concepts of spiritual evolution found in Plato, Plotinus, Aurobindo, Teilhard de Chardin, Arthur M. Young and others, concepts which help us define all of existence as a spiritual work-of-art in progress. Within this milieu, what I have proposed would make artists important and perhaps essential agents in the evolution of humanity and the Universe itself. So, not only priests and priestesses of the mystic impulse as I once described them to be, but keepers of an eternal flame that draws us ever-onward through continuous transformations of being. Perhaps this is a hefty burden to place upon artists, but it can also be embraced as a sacred privilege.

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