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Art and the Spiritual Life

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by Sangharakshita

... this introduction which has hurried us through the contents of two whole lectures.

But as I said at the beginning, it is important to get this subject, Art and the Spiritual Life, very much in perspective and context. But I hope nevertheless, as from next week, with people becoming increasingly familiar with this material week by week, that we shall be able to plunge straight into our subject for the week without too much recapitulation.

As I said at the beginning, by `Art' we mean all the Fine Arts. We take the term to cover painting, sculpture, poetry, music, architecture, and so on. And by `Spiritual Life', the other half of our title for this lecture, we mean the whole process of the Higher Evolution.

Incidentally, I must confess that I am not very happy with this word `spiritual'. When I was drawing up the list of the titles of these talks I hesitated very much before putting down this word `spiritual' and speaking of `Art and the Spiritual Life' because for some people, I know, this word `spiritual' has all sorts of wrong connotations. When one speaks of spiritual life, they start thinking of spirits and spiritualism and table rapping and ghostly messages and ghostly voices and shapes and apparitions. So I couldn't help feeling the word `spiritual' is best avoided. It's almost as bad, one might say, as the word `religion', which has for many people similar unpleasant connotations. But unfortunately, there are really no generally current equivalents for this word `spiritual'. I did start thinking that we might start popularising, perhaps, the term metabiological which I have used before. I know it is a bit long, Lecture 77 - Art and the Spiritual Life - Page 3 - metabiological, but at least it has the merit of covering all the higher manifestations of the human spirit (you see, there's that word again, spirit), not only art but also religion and philosophy as well.

Now when we speak of Art and the Spiritual Life, or Art and the Higher Evolution, we are not suggesting that they are really two different things. Not that you have Art and the Spiritual Life, art here and spiritual life there, joined merely externally by that little word `and'. It is not that Art and Religion are related in a manner merely external. One might even go so far as to say that Art is included in the spiritual life, that the Fine Arts are just one particular type of aspect or manifestation of the Higher Evolution itself. This does not, of course, mean that one cannot lead the spiritual life, cannot participate in the higher evolution of humanity, without being an artist. It doesn't mean that; but it does mean that one cannot be an artist without at the same time participating in the spiritual life, in the higher evolution. To the extent that one is an artist, a true artist, authentically an artist of any kind, one is participating in the Higher Evolution of Man.

Now this sort of idea, I am sure, is unfamiliar to most people. They would regard it perhaps as an unnecessary glorification of the artist and they might even strongly disagree. We know that most people's evaluation of art and of artists is usually a rather low one. They don't think very highly of them really, not in comparison with other really important things, other really important activities. Only too many people tend to look down upon the arts and the artist and to think of the artist as occupying himself with rather trivial things, not with a real man's work as it were. I remember in this connection a little story, I believe - as far as I recollect - from the autobiography of Sir Osbert Sitwell, which is a many-volumed work written at great length, great prolixity1 but it contains some very good stories very well told. Perhaps you know that the Sitwells2 belonged to one of those very very brilliant families in which everybody seems to be practically a genius; all your brothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, uncles and so on are geniuses - this must be a wonderful way of growing up. So you had apparently Osbert and Sacheverell and the famous Edith, all living together when they were young in this vast old rambling family mansion, and one of them used to live in one wing, and another in another wing, with half a mile of corridors in between, there were lots of servants (this was 60 years ago). So the story goes, as related by Osbert Sitwell, that one morning he wanted to communicate with sister Edith in her wing. So he rang the bell to call a maidservant and gave the maidservant a little note, and he said, `Give this note to my sister, if she isn't busy. But if she is doing something, if she's busy, don't give it to her, don't disturb her. Just come straight back, bring the note and tell me.' So about 15 minutes later, having traversed all those corridors, in both directions, the maidservant returned. And Sir Osbert asked her, `Have you delivered the note?' She said, `Oh, yes.' `Was my sister doing anything, then?' `Oh no, she wasn't doing anything at all, she was just writing.' So this is the attitude only too often; if you are writing or painting, or if you are doing anything else of that sort, you're `not doing anything really'.

So in view of this sort of popular misunderstanding of the subject of the arts in general, let's just try to go a little more deeply into this whole subject and try to see in what way, or in what sense, art is part of the spiritual life, part of the Higher Evolution of Man. And how also, the artist is, in fact, himself the New Man. Now this will involve a consideration of a question of what is Art. But we'll put that aside for a moment and we will first consider the artist as New Man, consider the artist as sharing the characteristics of the New Man.

In the last lecture we saw that the New Man is distinguished by five characteristics.

Undoubtedly there are lots of others, but these seem to stand out. Characteristics of self- consciousness or awareness, true individuality, creativity, aloneness, and frequent unpopularity. So let us just pause for a moment before going into the question of what is Art and just see, briefly, how these five characteristics of the New Man apply to the artist, whether poet, painter, sculptor or musician and so on.

First of all, the artist is more self-conscious or more aware. The artist, we may even say the true artist, is more alive than other people. And this is very often revealed by the fact that he is more Lecture 77 - Art and the Spiritual Life - Page 4 - sensitive in the full sense of the term, in the best sense of the term, than people usually are.

We know that the painter is much more vividly, much more keenly, aware of differences of shape, of contour, of colour, etc., much more alive to, more aware of these things than other people. I think I have mentioned before in previous lectures that if you happen to go out with an artist friend, say, into the country, whether it is in the Spring or the Autumn or some other time of year, you will notice, you will observe, you can't help noticing, that he sees more than you do. He'll call your attention to something: maybe the outline of a tree against the sky or the colours of a fallen leaf or a withered flower, or shadows cast by something, blue shadows cast by trees on the grass; and he'll point out to you that those shadows are blue and you almost certainly haven't noticed that. The painter has a much keener eye, he is much more aware of what is going on in the outside world, in the world of shapes and forms and colours.

And in the same way with the musician, the musician has a much keener ear, he can detect differences of notes which we perhaps can't detect. I remember that when I was in India I was astonished by the subtleties sometimes of the drumming in Indian music, the subtleties of their drum playing. These were difficult to detect, difficult to follow sometimes, even by an Indian who was comparatively experienced, comparatively trained in these things. There were sometimes unbelievable refinements and delicacies in the playing of that particular instrument.

Sometimes the drum would be made to whisper, almost like a voice whispering; sometimes it would be very staccato, sometimes sort of soft, sometimes as it were grumbling. One could get the drums almost to speak. And sometimes such subtle difference as that only the trained ear of the musician could possibly detect and know that there was either something right or something wrong.

Then again we find that the poet is equally sensitive to the meaning and the value and the rhythm of words. We use words most of the time but use them in a very careless, a very coarse sort of way, not fully aware or not fully sensitive to the value and the meaning and even the texture of the words. I have already mentioned this evening the name of Edith Sitwell and in this connection some of her comments on words and their different values are of very great interest. She is not satisfied with speaking just of the meaning of words and the length or shortness of the syllable and so on. She speaks in terms of the tone of words, of the texture of words: some words are rough and others are smooth, some words are even hairy, she says. And then again there is the weight of words: some words are light, some words are heavy. She, being a poet, is sensitive to all this, whereas usually we are not.

And in the same way, the artist, of whatsoever kind, is much more aware of his own response to all these things, his own mental and emotional states. Not just in the sense of reflecting upon them more than we do but in the sense of experiencing these states much more intensely and in a much more concentrated manner than other people. And then again we may say that the artist usually is more aware of other people than is usually the case. We see this especially in a very highly developed form in the work ...

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