Monday, June 23, 2008

art and essence



After a seven-year hiatus, I have begun to do artwork again, having finally rediscovered a connection -- albeit a different kind -- with my artistic inclinations.

The first results of this resurrected impulse were posted on the blog last week in the entry "Crossing the Bridge." The piece--a phoenix, appropriately enough, in colored pencil, 30" x 40"--is part of an intended series called "creatures of light and darkness -- images drawn from the collective unconscious."

In taking this enterprise up again, it occurs to me that most of us do not really understand art. I'm not talking about understanding it from the perspective of materials, technique, art history, critique, or commercialism. Anyone with a reasonable mind and motivation who wishes to can educate themselves in these areas. [Those who are interested in the biological roots of art would do well to read Ellen Dissanayake's "Homo Aestheticus," a highly academic work that manages to brilliantly place art at the heart of man's evolutionary enterprise, rather than at its periphery.]

I'm going to present a completely different idea about art today.

All of us mistake art for being the objects or the events. We make something beautiful -- and that beautiful thing is called art. We write music, and then what we hear when we hear it played is called art. We see dance, and the dance is referred to as art. Any and all of these things, these external experiences, objects, and juxtapositions, are collectively labeled as art. Dissanayake recognizes that these enterprises cover such a wide range of territory that the word "art" may be too narrow. She calls it "making things special."

A revolutionary possibility arises from an inversion of our usual understanding: art is not within the objects, events, or circumstances.

Art is always and ever in the seeing.

The experience of the object is art. That is to say, the arrival of the impression of whatever it is that is being perceived is the actual event called "art.". Art is, in other words, a neurological phenomenon, and only exists in the context of the perceiver and what is received.

This means that man-made objects -- which, we can all absolutely agree, may greatly stimulate such perceptions -- are not the only form of art. And indeed, if we read P. D. Ouspensky's "A New Model of the Universe," we discover that before he ever met Gurdjieff, he had recognized that the extraordinary forms, shapes, colors, organisms and lifestyles that nature produces are actually a form of art. He called it "fashion in nature," but it's clear he understood that nature itself is an artist. Or at least he understood that the perception of nature has the question of art resident within it.

If we look at Emerson's writings about the nature of art and the nature of nature itself, we discover that he asked similar questions about the nature of art in relationship to the perception of the sacred. He always felt that nature expressed art in a manner far higher than anything man was capable of. If this was Romanticism, it was Romanticism in the classical sense: not a romanticism of sentiment alone, but a recognition of the fact that the exploration of nature with our senses is an unparalleled, magnificent adventure that lasts through a lifetime.

Neither one of these remarkable thinkers took the final step in to seeing that the art lies in the perceiving, not in what is perceived.

We arrive once again at the point where the crossing of the bridge between the outer and the inner is the enterprise where meaning arises.

Understood in this manner -- that art is in the seeing -- we discover that there is an essential quality to seeing in which every manifestation of an external reality becomes a perfect expression of the sacred. This understanding, which is born of the organism in a moment where it truly sees, lies close to the heart of the concept of essential perfection that we encounter in Sufism, Buddhism, Christianity, and other major religions. All events, all circumstances, all arisings, are art if they are perceived properly.

I realize as I explain this that the word "art" is insufficient. We can begin there, by turning the concept of art on its head and saying that the object is not art, the act of perception of the object is art, but then we start to tiptoe up to territory in which the word "art" cannot express what needs to be expressed.

The inherent nature of deep organic perception--seeing--transcends what we call art, it transcends what we call beauty. It begins to touch an emotional well within the human soul that the casual experience of Beethoven's symphonies or van Gogh's paintings only hint at.

Worth looking at, this.

Perhaps even worth seeing.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

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