THEOSOPHY, Vol. 52, No. 11, September, 1964
(Pages 340-342; Size: 9K)


[Article number (23) in this Q&A Department]

Despite numerous public exclamations of admiration concerning various "great" paintings or poems, there seems still to be an undercurrent of apathy and even distrust in most people's attitudes about æsthetic subjects -- an attitude which is reflected in clichés such as "more truth than poetry," and in a general disparagement of "art for art's sake." But what is art, really? And why do so many people resist it? (See Youth-Companions Ask--And Answer for December, 1960, also July, 1962, and Youth Forum for July, 1964.) [Note: The above three references are a corrected version because even though the dates were correct it mistakenly listed them all as being in the "Youth Forum" department.--Compiler.]

Unfortunately it seems nowadays that art is used largely as therapy for the artist and that people in general react against what they consider "sickness," bloated intellectualism, or moral dislocation. It is of course true that art has always reflected society, and so to an extent the "pop art" invading the galleries and the anti-heroes invading literature may merely be signs of the times. Let us hope, though, that the artists responsible shall not in any real sense come to constitute "unacknowledged legislators" of our age -- for if they do, our age is surely doomed to chaos. Let them remain as mere symptoms of our sickness; then they will have some value for us, even if only a negative one.

It seems that this imbalance or sickness that we notice in so many modern works might stem from the artists' misunderstanding of the nature of art -- from undervaluing or overvaluing it. And many seem to have become involved with art for the wrong reasons. If they have been guilty of overvaluing it, for example, they are likely to think themselves prophets, and their work is liable to be solemn, pompous, and terribly meaningful; whereas if they have undervalued it, they are likely to consider it an inexpensive substitute for psychoanalysis, and to "express themselves" through it -- filling whole canvasses with gashes of orange, etc. But the greatest of art is not inspired either by self-love or self-hatred. Those are feelings that make us contract, and make people (if they are sensible) turn away from any works of art inspired by them.

Of course, in these few paragraphs it is not possible even to hope to express a satisfying definition of art (though apparently it has been possible to express some indignation), but surely the feeling out of which great art is generated must be expansive and outgoing, a sense of overflowing, a feeling of almost cosmic generosity. For there does indeed seem to be something gratuitous -- something unexpected, preciously fragile and freely given -- about truly great art. The artifact itself can't really last for long -- even the Sistine ceiling has cracks in it now -- but the feeling the artifact stands for is, fortunately, highly contagious, and sows itself in new minds all the time, inspiring new works, which in turn may serve to remind still later generations, not of how "sick" we are, but of how beautiful and very big the universe is.

Keats declared that a thing of beauty is a joy forever; how can this be, when we know all things are subject to time, unless it is that the spirit in art stands somehow outside of time, complete unto itself, ever "breaking out of all its contours, like a star," and yet ever returning again into itself, like the downward glance of a Michelangelo madonna? All great artistic works, then, may be seen as emblematic of eternity; may be seen, in short, as symbols. Perhaps this really means that art must find its inspiration and substance in philosophy -- the key to an understanding of all symbols -- though usually, for the artist, his philosophy will be so deeply implicit that it can make itself felt only as a general attitude towards life; since after all, if his philosophy were merely conceptual, his art would be only propaganda. Yet he must have a philosophical basis. It is not enough to "go off and be an artist." It is not even enough to work at technique for years and years. Work is essential, of course, but work alone will make one merely a craftsman -- and one must aspire to become an artist. That aspiration is impossible unless one has certain feelings about the nature of the universe, the dignity of man, the possibility for growth. Theosophy certainly is one philosophy which gives a person ample psychological room for aspiration, although of course other religions and philosophies have to some extent given it also, since all that is really needed is a sense of awe before the immensity of Cosmos, and a feeling of love for all the human particulars of our world.

What then is the artist, philosophically speaking? In Emerson's words, the genius or potential artist which resides in the heart of every human being "is a continuation of the power that made him and that has not done making him." It is in this sense -- as a power -- that the artist achieves immortality, even though his creations, like our own bodies, must some day be lost. For though the marble must return to the earth, and (according to Ecclesiastes) "the golden bowl be broken," the earth will not only abide, but may actually become a bit more spiritually porous, more sentient, for having experienced a miracle -- that of transformation into art. "The evolution of the entire universe," says Loren Eiseley, "--stars, elements, life, man -- is a process of drawing something out of nothing, out of the utter void of non-being. The creative element in the mind of man -- that latency which can conceive gods, carve statues, move the heart with the symbols of great poetry, or devise the formulas of modern physics -- emerges in as mysterious a fashion as those elementary particles which leap into momentary existence in great cyclotrons, only to vanish again like infinitesimal ghosts. The reality we know in our limited lifetimes is dwarfed by the unseen potential of the abyss where science stops. In a similar way the smaller universe of the individual human brain has its lonely cometary passages, or flares suddenly like a super nova, only to subside in death while the waves of energy it has released roll on through unnumbered generations."

Ultimately, the true artist is one who draws some portion of an unseen potential out of the abyss. And as such he becomes one of the healers of mankind's wounds and illnesses and one of the leaders of all life's evolution; for it is he, like Adam, who gives a name and a context to things and feelings, and thus in a sense gives them life. He gives them a chance, a significance, a gentle push towards sentience -- and in this wayward world a home.

*  *  *

The grace of the whispering autumn field lies dying
behind those low and blunted walls of words.
Forgive them, do not ask the stones to sing,
to miracle the world by turning men
and storming all the fortresses of death;
for death is also human, and needs us strangely,
as woman needs embrace, -- or a poet, words.

Ask only, then, that every stone be real,
not philosophic simulation, but stone
pressing the earth like heavy-breasted death
pressing as itself is pressed by life,
so that even if the hidden fields
fade, we'll know at least that they were real
and must therefore have lived to have so died.

Next article:
(October 1964)
[Part 1 of a 3-part article]
[Article number (24) in this Q&A Department]

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