THEOSOPHY, Vol. 89, Issue 1, November/December 2000
(Pages 335-340; Size: 11K)


[Article number (11) in this Department]

What is the spiritual in art?

Art, whatever medium of expression is chosen, can be both profoundly personal and spiritually evocative of universal ideals. It solicits both sense and understanding. Art gives us a voice of a greater dimension than we can hear in the normal din of daily life. It provides a solemn meditation on values yet can delight the heart and mind. It is communication that seeks meaning, a ritual for the individual's will to create, to remember, to idealize, to make concrete the truths discovered. The question pondering the spiritual in art follows a theme on "Sacred Art," published in the March/April 2000 issue of THEOSOPHY, but requires a more deliberate consideration by several students along different facets of inquiry.


This question reminds me of a teacher I once had who tried to show why one of Rilke's Duino Elegies was a great and spiritually uplifting poem. In the process of taking the poem apart for analysis we drifted farther and farther from the vital spring that was the poem. Great art, which is art with a spiritual, transforming dimension, seems to have no formula. Although a wonderful painting such as Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper may have in it a detectable color scheme, the golden mean, special perspective, etc., none of these things give the painting a spiritual dimension per se. True art somehow has the power to uplift, educate, and transform our thinking to a more universal perspective all at the same time. Emotional reaction or the power to make one sentimental is not a reflection of the spiritual in art.

What is the spiritual in art then? Canvas isn't especially spiritual, or paint or any particular note on the scale. Somehow the combination of colors, or sounds or a particular way of expressing something has an uncanny power about it to effect our consciousness in a positive way that is beyond the particular context of the time or place. Maybe this is why great art is not usually recognized, except by a few, in the generation in which it is produced.

Along another line of thought, a work of art, painting, sculpture, musical score, poem, piece of pottery is a form, an objective expression of a subjective reality or idea. The vital center of the subjective world is spirit, the source of all life and the metaphysical place, so to speak, that the potentiality for ongoing perfection resides. The more an object of art expresses perfection (is well made), the closer it approximates a pure expression of the spiritual side of life. Good art is not moralistic, because it shatters our preconceived notions and thrusts us beyond the usual pairs of opposites that define the context of our lives. This is probably why meaningful art is often controversial in its own time.

So-called "primitive" cultures made no distinction between the sacred and the secular. All their productions had a magical as well as a utilitarian purpose. From clothes to weapons, all imitated the divine prototypes. The sacred or spiritual was not removed from everyday life but rather infused it. Modern culture tends to remove art from the everyday, the spiritual from the material. We might do well to contemplate the definition of Iswara, the Spirit in the body (see Patanjali's Yoga Aphorisms I, p. 23).


Implicit in the question is the idea that there is indeed, something spiritual in art. Does this mean that all art has a latent spirituality? We know that in the present culture, there are many so-called arts. So called, because everything that is crafted by an individual, whether by hand or with the use of sophisticated technology, is often considered to be a work of art; so how are we to distinguish between an artifact, a well-crafted object, a perfect expression of a skill, or a true work of art? Dancers, musicians, painters, sculptors are traditionally considered to be engaged in the fine arts. But what of the rest of us that go on day after day, without a particular "fine art" to express through?

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote:

I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so make a few objects beautiful, but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of a day, that is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.
The moral nature gives man the ability to change his lens, if we recall the analogy that the mind is a lens that needs constant cleaning by our moral nature, to see clearly. Herein lies a clue to the spiritual in art; for what is morality but that which is beneficial to the whole of life. When we consider the complex nature of man and man's septenary make-up, we become aware of the many states of consciousness in which we live. We go through life taking on infinite combinations of filters, for each filter may be considered a state of consciousness since "All is consciousness and its states" HPB points out.

When we express a thought or feeling through a medium, we are manifesting our state of consciousness. Claude Bragdon, in The Beautiful Necessity (Kessinger, 1995), wrote that "Art is Idealized Creation: Nature carried to a higher power, by reason of its passage through a human consciousness." In its highest application, we may visualize seven planes of consciousness through which we travel while in a human body. Bragdon shows man to be one of choice, and when choice is exercised through the moral nature, the expression will be one or a combination of physical, intellectual, and spiritual origin.

The spiritual in art is manifest when it expresses a timeless quality. The spirit is omniscient and conveys the idea of unity, a spontaneous recognition of brotherhood through the expression of an artist's universal perception. At this moment, we are in the same state of consciousness as the artist. The need to look within for this realization is expressed in another way. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in Art, wrote:

Away with your nonsense of oil and easels, of marble and chisels; except to open your eyes to the masteries of eternal art. They are hypocritical rubbish. Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.
Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end, after he plundered the stronghold on the proud height of Troy.
These opening lines of The Odyssey provide the perfect example of the proper position to be assumed by the artist who sets out to express the spiritual in art. In this case the art is poetry. In another it might be music or painting or dance. But the dynamic is always the same. The first few words of the above passage reveal the entire mystery. Taking each in turn, three components are involved: the source of inspiration (the "Muse"), that which is to be conveyed from one to the other (the "story"), and the artist (here the poet or singer).

The Muse is a convention used by the ancient Greeks to personify the higher self, i.e., the spiritual self, the immortal nature, the part of us that persists throughout eternity and contains within itself all knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge of all past events is there (for example, the story of Odysseus) as well as the very principles of life themselves, the divine archetypes, the "forms" of Plato, such as Justice, Goodness, Harmony, and Beauty (thus, the basis for telling the story in a harmonious and beautiful, i.e., "artistic" way).

The second component, then, the story, consists of the message sent by the higher self. Again, this message contains not only the event or design or image to be conveyed but the fundamental principles underlying their harmonious and beautiful expression.

The third component, the artist, represents the lower self. Important to note is that the artist assumes the position of a supplicant appealing to the higher self for guidance and instruction. The artist has humility. The artist becomes an instrument, a vessel, and a conduit for the message that is to be received from the spiritual nature.

To produce spiritual art an artist must accomplish a couple extraordinarily difficult tasks: First, get out of the way so the higher self can have full expression; i.e., reduce concern for the personality (personal success, profit, prestige) and replace it with an ongoing attention to the immortal nature. Second, perfect the lower instruments (vocabulary, grammar, rhythm, observations of nature, etc., for a poet; draftsmanship, perspective, design, color, etc., for a painter; melody, harmony, orchestration, etc., for a composer) in order to skillfully express outwardly what has been seen and heard inwardly.

The spirituality of a work of art depends on how accurately and faithfully the artist, first, receives the higher self's message and, second, translates that message to the intended audience. Most fail on both counts. A few succeed in the first but not the second. Only the genius fully succeeds in both.

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(January/February 2001)
[Article number (12) in this Department]

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