Friday, November 29, 2013

ARTICLE ~ Spiritual Art & Practice ~ Defining Terms

When I say 'spiritual' what do I mean?

For a Buddhist using the word 'spiritual' will have a different connotation than for a Christian, Muslim or Hindu.  Spiritual, is not for Buddhism, another way of saying sensitivity to a godly presence, or soulful inclination towards a divine creator. So what would the Buddhist interpretation of the term 'spiritual' really be pointing towards, if not to that? Here is where I need to chose carefully what words I use. Most English terms expressing a 'sense for something Other' than mundane worldly existence, are so stained through with Christian associations that, without intending to, it could still sound like I'm talking about god. Also, when attempts are made to define god, they can become so loose and broad that anything and everything becomes absorbed into it, like a black hole. So it's a minefield for misinterpretation, but here goes.

Bernini's ~ Ecstasy of St Theresa

When the Moon is full, and the sky a dark blue, the silver white of our nearest satellite shines down upon us like a bright beneficent goddess. For many thousands of years the Moon was only a deity you would point at, ask a favour of, or worship. Godlike deities are usually like this, visible but distant, tangible but intangible. Yet they are said to influence and guide human behaviour, to which you need only to surrender too, however unfathomable their purpose. Theistic interpretation of the word spiritual reflects this. Its about being in ecstasy with the divinity, abandoning ones liberty or freedom of choice, to let god be you guide. Anything spiritual, comes to represent this yearning to be at one with the godhead, to have you soul lifted up, your spirits elevated or transported to a more heavenly angelic realm. 

In Buddhism the Moon is not a god, its just a way to imaginatively visualise the goal of Enlightenment. There's a traditional Zen phrase about 'a finger pointing at the Moon'. So whilst the Moon is Enlightenment, the finger represents the descriptions of Enlightenment and practices that point towards the way to get there. The meaning of the phrase is that the finger is not the Moon ~ the means to the end, not being mistaken for the end ~ the practices alone are not it. So a Buddhist gazing at the Moon is aspiring to become more like a Buddha. They are not asking any deity for help, but they are directing themselves on the path towards the state of Enlightenment. 

In some traditions, this is often couched in terms like Buddha Nature or Other Power, which are criticised within Buddhism as verging too close to deification. They are simply metaphors, ways of talking about Enlightenment as not remote, but present and waiting, as a finger pointing. The idea of Other Power is interesting, in that as our practice deepens the state of Enlightenment as a vaguely intuited Other Power can be perceived as coming to meet us, to give us a leg up. You might be forgiven for thinking that sounds like god, but its more like plants growing towards the rays of the Sun.  The Moon and the reflection of that Moon in a puddle of water are, ultimately speaking, seen as the same.


So 'spiritual' in a Buddhist context, would be any subtle or profound experience that enriches our sense of the Enlightened state. Things that give a heartfelt sense for our final destination as practitioners, reinforce our confidence, trust or faith in the efficacy of our practice, and in the reality of that goal. The full achievement of Enlightenment for all of humanity in complete alignment with the whole universe.

For a Buddhist the experience of something spiritual in art, would be whatever gave us this visionary or passionate glimpse, an emotional uplift or encourage our Sraddha (faith.) in the goal
of Enlightenment. The basic qualities that the word spiritual evokes, are awe and aspiration to achieve that harmonious state of concord. In this Buddhist and Theistic use of the term spiritual bear a passing similarity, both desire to go beyond human and earthly limitations. It would however be a bit glib and superficial to say that we are therefore talking about the same thing. There are concepts and perceptions of how that ultimate goal is achieved, that differ greatly. They are not the same, so don't cobble them into a matching pair of bookends. 

The Prajna Paramita Mantra, expresses this ultimate Buddhist spiritual aspiration through a series of 'going beyonds' till we are Enlightened to reality as it really is.

Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond, Gone Altogether Beyond, Oh What An Awakening, All Hail! 

The spiritual in art provides a sensation in the present moment of what this 'going beyond' might be like. Yet for the artist, the art itself, and the viewer of the art, this spiritually awakening experience will be different. Generally art refines our sensibilities, it prepares us for ever subtler levels of awareness. The spiritual experience of a piece of  art, could either be one instance of momentary transformation, or a gradually developed aesthetic instinct that slowly re-orientates our whole being. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

ARTICLE ~ Spiritual Art & Practice ~ Introduction

Van Gogh
In recent months I've been reading books about artists and their art. Initially I thought this was simply reconnecting with the work of favourite artists in a quasi-nostalgic regression to the enthusiasms of youth. The longer this has gone on the less true this has seemed. Yes, I have been rekindling enthusiasms, but at the same time I've been developing a clearer sense for what their artistic process was like and how that might correlate with mine. Some of these artists are Van Gogh, Mondrian, Van Doesburg, Kurt Schwitters, Paul Klee, Bridget Riley, Frank Stella and Sol Lewitt. They have all either influenced my working methods, style or my sense of aesthetic. As both a Buddhist and an artist, I'm interested in how art and the process of making it could be a spiritual practice and what it is that makes art 'spiritual' anyway.

Quite apart from any practical consequences upon my art and artistic process, their work possesses a joyful life affirming quality for me. This feels like a spiritual affinity. For some of these artists, their artwork was a search for the essential fundamentals of Art, a manifestation of the universal, that had a  psychological or spiritual search for unity underpinning to it. They became more abstract and less representational the deeper this search for the spiritual in the universal went. This made their art grow progressively more weird, out of touch and hence other worldly. Its as if they've come down to us from an alien, if not alienating, realm ~ and hence increasingly difficult for ordinary folk outside of it to easily relate to anymore. Modern Art Aesthetics and Buddhist Metaphysics are both similar in this respect, in that the worlds they describe aren't that easy for the casual observer to comprehend or appreciate.

Essentially, most people have a simple uncomplicated desire to bring beauty into their world and hence appreciate when they see this in Art. Lets be honest, much of the world we are surrounded by is ugly. There is much about human life, and indeed some art, that is undoubtedly vulgar, grubby and wretched. Artists can show us these unpalatable, cruel and soiled aspects of life, and I wouldn't for one moment wish to censor or denigrate that. It is an important function for art to reflect all aspects of the world to us. The world is a place of suffering, one we frequently want to avert our gaze away from. Artists needs to be able to show us what the world is really like at its worst, as well as its best. These days the bias is towards the worst, and can be all we are presented with. We are encouraged to cultivate skepticism, cynicism, apathy, to view the world nihilistically. Because there is no hope, no beauty, no possibility of transcendence proffered, there is nowhere for our 'soul' to soar too. Something to inspire or aspire to in an elevating positive way is rare. Any artist who makes beautiful art can be seen as naive, fatally romantic and their work as a flawed escapism from the real brutality of life. A positive outlook or refined sense of aesthetic is out of fashion and not a position that an artist with any contemporary relevance should hold for long.  It is, however, also true that the singular pursuit of beauty as an end in itself, will, at least in part, be founded upon the pursuit of an idealised vision of a pain free, perfectible heaven on earth ~ basically an eternalistic world view.

Le Witt

What we are being presented with here is a false opposition between a nihilistic and eternalistic art aesthetic. Each one pointing out the perceptual flaws in the others worldview. In  truth, each has its own spiritual value, but each can also be misleading because of their partiality, and hence the incompleteness of their worldly perspective. If we form a more spiritual perspective on art, we don't have to buy into this dichotomy. There are aspects that can be of spiritual value wthin nihilistic and eternalistic art perspectives, though one has to be wary of them, and of our own bias towards one or the other. Ask ourselves ~ What does this artwork tell me about life and the world I live in? ~ What might it help me better understand? ~ Is it blind or insightful in any way? ~ Does it move me or encourage an enquiring or empathic response? ~ Does it point towards anything that is above or beyond existence? ~ Does it feed mine or other peoples greed, hatred or delusion?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

DIARY 119 ~ Following the Thread of Creativity

I have come somewhat late in life to the flabbergasting conclusion that I am an artist and always have been. Denying this, has no doubt been one cause of the recurring demon of meaninglessness that has dogged my adulthood. My struggles to understand the latter ultimately did lead me to Buddhism. I'd like to be able to say that Buddhism completely resolved the whole issue. It has certainly explained, contextualised, stabilised and proved beneficial to me on many levels. Yet,there's always been this nagging feeling that, good though this was, there was another thing I needed to be doing.

On the ultimate level of the Unconditioned this desire for self-expression has to be seen through and gone beyond, yet on the relative level of the Conditioned, one can't go beyond anything before it has first been gone through.  So there are no short cuts to the transcendental, without first fully understanding the nature of mundane reality as it actually is. For a while my practice of the Buddha's Dharma did become a part of the problem, because it created a 'legitimating smokescreen' behind which to suppress these 'Self-ish' artistic impulses. Providing this had the necessary 'spiritual gloss' over it, no one, least of all myself, was going to challenge it.

Art and spiritual practice do bear some similarities, in that they are both creative endeavours with a sense for making manifest something beyond one's immediate experience. However, I've come to understand that its quite misleading to believe that the stream of artistic creativity can simply be redirected to flow into the dharmic river. The best one could hope for is to be able to put ones creative talents at the service of the Dharma in some way, to see the selfless giving of it as a form of Kalyana Mitrata ( spiritual friendship ).

I've been fortunate to work for Windhorse, a Buddhist company, where I've been able to do that to a degree that even I would not have envisaged five years ago. Yet this alone has proved not to be sufficient. The desire for creative self-expression kept abruptly poking its head through this selfless practice, and dragging those old depressive demons out with it. A lot of uncertainty and doubt then unrolls like a carpet and lays itself out to bask in the burning heat of unhelpful attention.

Something has been a bit awry or unfocused, within my spiritual practice for quite a while. Sources of inspiration in the course of time inevitably dry up or lose their touchstone quality, meditation practice can become a bit stale or starts to dwindle from time to time, this is what can happen in the spiritual life. In my experience ,a cloak of meaninglessness rests itself like a deadening blanket over everything I'm doing. This sense of everything being robbed of meaning and purpose, indicates something is lacking or being overlooked in my spiritual life. There's usually a need to review,reformulate and re-vision what I'm trying to do within it.

Its as though what I've previously been doing has gone terminally out of fashion. Suddenly I'm the only one still wearing flared jeans in a room where everyone else is dressed in drainpipes. Sometimes this volte-face happens imperceptibly and gradually, at other times it is sudden and rudely abrupt. Things change either with or without my knowing, depending on my general level of awareness. This realisation of the need to adapt to them, or how I should adapt to them, seems always to lag behind. Spiritual practice has always been for me a bit like unraveling knitting. I keep pulling on this woolen thread until it either comes to an end, it breaks, reaches a knot or becomes so irrevocably tangled up I can no longer find my way forward. This appears to be where I'm at the moment, scrabbling about in the twilight feeling for a new thread to pick up and follow.

Friday, November 08, 2013

FEATURE 118 ~ Cafe De Unie ~ J.J.P.Oud

The Drawing ~ In 1925

The Building ~ Today

QUOTATION MARKS 44 ~ Theo Van Doesburg

' Life is in continual motion. We perceive life externally and internally. art expresses our perception of life, not only the external perception but above all the internal. The more this perception fixes itself on the external the more superficial art is, the more this perception directs itself to the internal, the deeper, more spiritual and more abstract art will be.

Because the subject of art is eternally changing life, its means of expression is necessarily constantly changing. This continual change is the movement or evolution of art. Art is continually in movement because life commands it to be so and whenever it happens to us, such as now, that we do not understand the art of this time, it is not because art stands still, but because we do not move together with art. We stood still and art went past us. '


Thursday, November 07, 2013

QUOTATION MARKS 43 ~ John Ruskin

"Hundreds of people can talk,
for one who can think.

But thousands of people can think,
for one who can see"


Friday, November 01, 2013

ARTICLE ~ Mondrian & Theosophy

I finished reading an art book this week ~ Mondrian by  John Milner. Well researched and illustrated with plenty of colour plates ( I mean, what is the point of B&W photos of paintings?) it gave a glimpse into aspects of his approach to painting that aren't always given much emphasis ~ the spiritual philosophy behind them. Mondrian is probably the clearest example in modernism to demonstrate how a artist progresses from a representational to an abstract painter. There is a consistent integrity of intention behind Mondrian's artwork, that's fascinating to see unfold.

In the late 19th Century Mondrian was a little known, but distinctive, Dutch landscape painter. With a strongly developed penchant for flattened perspectives and considered picture planes. Apart from these personal aesthetic explorations, Mondrian's experiments with Symbolism, Pointillism and Cubism were also fed by a distinct philosophical intention. Mondrian's thinking fell under the influence of Theosophy, a movement based on the works of Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, and even joined the Theosophical Society in 1909.

Theosophy was influential in late nineteenth century artistic and literary circles, seeking to define the universal myths, themes and virtues common to all religions.  In the aftermath of Nietsche saying 'God was Dead' there was an urge to salvage something from the wreckage,still of spiritual value to humanity. This desire to find the universality within all religions meant it often ignored significant differences, or whatever contradicted this viewpoint, and frequently made quite generalised or unsubstantiated assertions. It also catagorised their own distinct understanding of archetypal symbolism, which predates Jung's definitions by quite a few decades.

 Colours such as Red were associated with Earth, Blue with Spirituality, Yellow with the Intellect. Oval shapes were said to represent the 'cosmic egg' out of which all things were to be born. Square shapes symbolised immortality, perhaps linked with Pythagoras's idea that they stood for the soul. Downward triangle shapes indicate an unenlightened state, and upward pointing triangles an enlightened state. Knowing this information you begin to see how these ideas influenced the future direction of Mondrian's work

Artistically it was in vogue and had ardent followers. The Theosophical impulse to reveal these universal elements in Art, became an overarching principle in Mondrian's painting. In order to uncover these hidden qualities Mondrian stripped his art down to the barest essentials. For him revealing the universal meant an art that was less expressive of self. He began by trying to isolate fundamental structures directly observed from nature, such as trees or the ocean. When he moved to Paris, he applied the same process to the city-scape. The grids and rectangles that define Mondrian's artistic aesthetic, have their routes in this search for universal rhythm and counterpoint.

 Whilst he eventually abandoned the Theosophical aesthetic as too limiting, it nonetheless left its distinct marks upon his future Neo-plasticism philosophy, and his work.  The centrality of square forms, the positioning of colour planes, the rhythm repetition and direction of lines, open ended overlapping, or rooted, gave each painting a distinct emotional liveliness and tone.  He moved over the decades from a style of painting that was directly imitative of nature, to one that was only suggestive of nature, to an art that was none of these things, but had an expressive lifeaffirming purity of energy that was all its own. He wrote:~

" The abstract, like the mathematical ~ is actually expressed in and through all things....The truly modern artist consciously perceives the abstraction of the emotion of beauty: he consciously recognises aesthetic emotion as cosmic, universal. This conscious recognition results in an abstract plastic ~ limits him to the purely universal."