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Art and the Spiritual Life

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by Sangharakshita

... of the great portrait painters, of the great dramatists, of the great novelists. We see that in their works, other people, people of past ages and distant countries, live. I remember some time ago I saw in an art gallery a portrait painted I think early in the Renaissance 3 period, I forget by whom it was painted, and it was a portrait of a pope. And you saw by looking at him that he must have been a very wicked pope. You could see all in his face, every bit of it, you could see everything he had ever done practically in that portrait, in that face. You could see it in his eyes, in the texture of the skin, the shape of the mouth, and his rather grim, fixed expression. You could see that he must have come to the papacy by corruption, it was written all over his face; and much more than that, you could see all sorts of things, you could almost reconstruct his biography just from that portrait. The artist, the painter, whoever he was, had seen it all and had not only seen it but he had put it all down there on the canvas, in pigment.

And as I said, we see the same sort of thing in the dramatist, especially a dramatist like Shakespeare. We see the same sort of thing in the great novelists. We can see how clearly, how intensely these great artists do see other people. I remember again, to take an example from painting, that I used to think when I was much younger, that Hogarth's4 paintings of people were caricatures. But after being acquainted with people a bit more, for a few more years, and Lecture 77 - Art and the Spiritual Life - Page 5 - maybe observing them more closely, I came to realise that Hogarth was simply being deadly accurate. People were actually like that. He wasn't exaggerating anything, wasn't laying anything on thick, he wasn't a caricaturist, he just saw them as they were and as they were he depicted them in his paintings and in his engravings. He saw them with that almost terrifying, almost clairvoyant honesty and directness. But above all, we may say the artist is aware not just of the external world, not just of himself, not just of other people; the artist is aware in some sort of incomprehensible way of reality. Not in the sense that he is aware of or knows the concept, the word with a capital `R', but in the sense that he is deeply and resonantly sensitive to the meaning and mystery of existence itself. It is this that he feels, this mystery of existence, whether cosmic or human.

And then again, the artist has true individuality. The artist is an individualist or at least an individual in the positive and not in the negative sense of the term. The true artist never hesitates to go his own way, doesn't hesitate to be himself. In fact we may say that nowadays and for many a long day past, the artist is notorious for this, for going his own way, for being, or endeavouring to be, himself. And very often we find the artist flouts convention and refuses to conform, refuses to be just part of the mass. And in so doing, he is not just being eccentric.

He is not just being perverse or difficult. He is simply trying to lead his own life and to be himself.

And then again, the artist is creative. This of course goes without saying. Not just productive - though of course creation includes production - but creative in the sense of producing new values, values which did not exist or which were not experienced or perceived before. And it is interesting to note that the greatest, the very greatest artist, in most cases is often immensely productive, not just one or two masterpieces but ten, fifteen, twenty, even a hundred masterpieces. In the field of poetry, we think of Shakespeare,5 Goethe,6 Lope de Vega,7 of all the ancient Greek dramatists who produced at least one hundred dramas each, of which only a few unfortunately survive. In the world of music, we think of Bach,8 Handel,9 Haydn,10 Mozart,11 in the field of painting we think of Titian,12 Rubens,13 Rembrandt,14 and these are all amongst the very greatest names. We find that all are immensely productive, immensely creative. When we read the lives of these great artists of all kinds, we are struck, sometimes with wonder, at the spectacle of this uninterrupted flow of creativity. You wonder how on earth they managed to do it all, how for instance Bach managed to create that great mass of music. He must have been working at it morning, noon and night, uninterruptedly; and finding time, at the same time, to bring up nearly 20 children, I believe. Nowadays, you would find it difficult with just 2 or 3. And there was Bach, pouring out this great mass of music in what would seem to be rather unfavourable domestic conditions. And all this immense creativity and productivity of these artists implies a great deal of hard work. No dilettantism15 for them; they were up early in the morning, at their desks or easels, and they carried on all day until late at night, and this was their life, in some cases every day of their lives, for years on end, right into old age.

And then again, of course, and this is not surprising, the artist is alone, you won't find many companions in that sort of life. Like all New Men, the artist, too, is isolated from the masses on account of his greater awareness, his greater individuality, and even on account of his greater creativity. The ordinary man only too often cannot understand why the artist should take endless pains with words, with sounds, with colours. The ordinary man might think that one will do as well as another - why bother, does it really matter - a bit more or a little less shade, or this comma going in or that full-stop being taken out, what difference does it really make? But to the artist, to the creator, all these things are of the first importance. And we may say that the artist often feels his aloneness more even than the religious genius or the mystic, and as we shall see shortly, he occupies a sort of intermediate position, sort of half-way up the Higher Evolution of Man.

And lastly, the artist is unpopular, or rather not popular. Only too often, the really great artist is in advance of his time, in advance even of other comparatively ordinary artists. And sometimes it takes the rest of humanity even centuries to catch up. In many cases, they are still trying to catch up, or maybe they are not even trying. Only too often we find that the artist, the great Lecture 77 - Art and the Spiritual Life - Page 6 - creator, is condemned in his own generation only to be praised in others. It is as though the voice of the ordinary people said that the only good artist is a dead artist. This is all so well known that it is not necessary to insist upon it. But I hope I have said enough to show that the artist does share, in great measure, the characteristics of the New Man, and that the true artist, the really great artist, is in fact the New Man and participates as such in the higher evolution of humanity.

Well now, let us turn to the question of art. Let us try to answer the question: What is art? This is surely one of the most vexed, much debated and discussed questions in the whole history of thought, especially western thought; though it is discussed also in the East, especially in India, but the discussion which has gone on in India has followed such different lines that one cannot even begin to compare it with western discussions on the subject.

Now some years ago, when I had more time then I have nowadays, I devoted quite a lot of time and energy to the study of this question of what is art. And I found that there are numberless definitions of art, and some of them are in a way quite extraordinary. There is one definition that goes: `Art is an attempt to create pleasing forms.' This is Herbert Read's definition. Then there is another one, very famous indeed in its own day: `Art is significant form'. A whole book has been written about that phrase. This is Clive Bell's definition. And then we find someone else saying: `Art is intuition'. This is Croce16. This seems rather vague, that art is intuition. And all of these definitions, and all the other definitions that I came across, I found very very unsatisfactory. I found them either too broad or too narrow, or just incomplete. So I eventually decided that I would have to formulate my own definition of art, at least to my own satisfaction. And I did this in a little work that I wrote, I have forgotten exactly when but either in 1953 or 1954, when I was in Kalimpong, and I called it The Religion of Art. I am sorry to say it was never published, because it was too long for a magazine article, being about 40,000 words, and too short for a book. So it has remained in manuscript or typescript ever since, but I am still hoping to be able to bring it out in some form or other some day17.

Now in this little work I have defined art as follows: Art is the organisation of sense impressions [into pleasurable formal relations] that expresses the artist's sensibility and communicates to his audience a sense of values that can transform their lives. Now I believe, and this is my honest opinion, that this is the most complete definition of art that has ever been suggested. I have not seen any other since then in any way as complete, covering all aspects of the subject. So let us examine it in a little greater detail. There is no time for a full discussion, that would take us too far afield, but we will deal mainly with those aspects of the definition that have some bearing on the subject with which we are at present concerned: art and the spiritual life, or art and the Higher Evolution of Man.

First of all, `Art is the organisation of sensuous impressions'. I remember reading some time ago a book on poetry, and this book started off by saying that we must never forget that poetry consists of words. You might think it difficult to forget ...

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