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Art - Women-s Order Convention 1987

by Sangharakshita


Those Present:
The Venerable Sangharakshita, Punyavati, Dayanandi,
Mallika, Vajrapushpa, Ratnasuri, Padmavati, Bodhisri, Sridevi,
Tarasri, Ashokasri, Gunavati.
(NB: I can't sort out Bodhisri, Sridevi, Vajrapushpa and Gunavati for certain.)
Sangharakshita: Five questions. First one:
A question has arisen about the rupa created by Do Phillips in the shrine
room at Taraloka. We have heard that in your opinion this rupa is not
appropriate for a public shrine room, on the grounds that it expresses too
personal a view.
Could you define the process, the point, where the personal crosses over
and becomes the universal?
I'm not sure that I understand the question embodied in the last sentence. One
could say that 'the point where the personal crosses over and becomes the
universal' is the point where the personal crosses over and becomes the universal!
What does the question really mean? I'm not clear about that, I must say.
Tarasri: I think it means we don't appreciate where that point would be. What are
the criteria?
S: I suppose that raises the question: what does one mean by the personal and
what does one mean by the universal? It seems to me that in this question, taking
the question as a whole, 'personal' is used in two quite different ways: 'personal'
in the sense of perhaps idiosyncratic, and 'personal' in the sense of individual.
Maybe I'd better go back to the introductory bit. 'A question has arisen about the
rupa created by Do Phillips in the shrine room at Taraloka.' That's quite correct.
'We have heard that in your opinion this rupa is not appropriate for a public shrine
room on the grounds that it expresses too personal a view.' I'm not sure if I used
the word 'personal', but anyway we'll let that pass.
So think of a public shrine room, and think that one needs an image for that public
shrine room. What sort of image would you require? Supposing you need a
Buddha image - what sort of image would you require?
Mallika: One that inspires.
S: One that inspires; inspires who?
Dayanandi: Everybody.
S: Everybody. Would it be sufficient to have one that inspired just a few people
but didn't inspire the majority?
__________: Not in a public place.
S: Not in a public place. So that means that the image would have to have a sort
of general appeal; in a sense would have to be standard, if not universal, at least
standard. Or it shouldn't in a sense distract people, shouldn't divert their attention
from what the image really represents to something as it were accidental. We find
this nowadays quite a lot in the West with regard to Christian art, because there's
a lot of experiment going on in the field of art, including the field of religious art.
So sometimes you find, or you read about it in the newspapers, that a certain
church or a certain cathedral has installed a crucifixion which just upsets
everybody. It certainly represents the artist's vision of the crucifixion, and perhaps
that is a perfectly valid vision, but the function of the crucifix is to act as a sort of
focus of devotion for a number of people, and if they find it unacceptable, for one
reason or another, it doesn't any longer fulfil that function. If the artist's vision,
though valid, is so individual to him or to her that other people cannot, as it were,
share in it or participate in it. This has happened a lot with regard to Christian
religious art in recent years.
So I'm concerned about much the same thing in connection with our public shrine
rooms: that the image must embody a vision, if you like, of Enlightenment as
embodied in a particular human form, which people can share in and appreciate.
So the artist's vision shouldn't be too individual, in the sense of idiosyncratic. It
shouldn't be the artist's distinctive vision to too great an extent - not to an extent
which other people find it difficult to share in. The artist, in a way, has to make
himself or herself the vehicle of tradition and try to give a representation of
Enlightenment in human form which is as it were generally acceptable.
Of course, it's possible to go to the other extreme and just produce a standard piece
of work which is devoid of inspirational value; that's the opposite extreme. So the
artist has to be concerned to follow a middle way - keep his or her individuality
under strict control, or make sure that the individual vision subserves the vision
of the spiritual community as a whole, place his or her skills at the service of the
spiritual community, rather than trying to present the spiritual community with his
or her individual vision.
So what I personally felt was, in the case of Do's work was that, though it was a
very good piece of work artistically considered, it did represent her, in a sense,
idiosyncratic vision more than was suitable for the shrine room of a public Centre;
because too many people seemed to feel 'The Buddha couldn't have really looked
like that', sort of thing. So that's what I meant before when I spoke of a
distraction; because instead of just focusing on the image you start wondering
why the artist has represented the Buddha in that particular way. It has nothing to
do with the artistic value of the image at all, simply with its suitability for that
particular function. I personally think that that particular rupa is a very good one,
and I personally like it; but it's not suitable for that particular place. I'd be happy
to have it in my own room, but not in a public shrine room.
But then there's this knotty question of the personal crossing over and becoming
a universal. So what does one mean by 'the personal' in this sense? Here the
personal is more the individual. Perhaps one can think of it more in terms of
literature, more in terms of poetry; perhaps that will be easier. Supposing you
give expression to your own individual feelings, your very own individual
feelings, in a poem, and you give adequate expression. Well, the fact that they are
your individual feelings as a human being will mean that the poem is accessible
to all other human beings who are capable of those feelings. In that way, though
individual, the appeal of the poem is at the same time universal. The individual,
in a sense, is the universal. But the poem can only be universal by being truly
individual. If you try to present in your poem, say, the common denominator of
the sort of feelings that people have on a certain occasion, you won't succeed in
communicating your feeling. You'll be neither individual nor universal. But if
you're truly individual you'll be universal too - taking the word universal in a
somewhat restricted sense, meaning you will give expression to the sort of feelings
which are common to human beings in that sort of situation.
If, of course, your experience is so unusual, even though you are able to give
adequate expression to it, it won't be universal because hardly anybody else will
have had that experience. So that's why all the greatest poetry seems to be
concerned, to the extent that it expresses emotion, with quite
basic human
emotions - of loss, bereavement, separation, joy - not more subtle, sophisticated,
idiosyncratic emotions.
Vajrapushpa: Of course, I think a good poet should stretch the reader a bit.
S: Yes, indeed, but would stretch the reader from where he or she actually is, not
make them feel that they've got nothing in common with the feelings of the poet,
as some modern poets probably sometimes do.
Ashokasri: That's interesting, when you're talking about the artist serving the
spiritual community ......
S: Yes, that was something different; I've got away from that now.
Ashokasri: Yes; but in a way I saw a connection in terms of you talking about the
poem - how it's communicating in relation to the individual, or to other people
from their starting point - connecting with their starting point. I was just thinking
of the place of - you talk about those modern poets who don't do that, and perhaps
an artist would do a very good painting, but paintings that aren't really acceptable
to people at the moment, but maybe in the future, and still communicate some
S: Because we see, if we look at all the great ages of culture in the past, it's
usually happened that the artist - whether painter or poet or musician - has shared
in the general assumptions of his age, so that he is in harmony or he is in tune with
his or her audience, as it were; going with it, not against it; going with it even
though he or she goes beyond it at the same time. It's going further, but going
further in much the same direction, not going in a totally different direction, in
such cases. Sometimes, of course, you do have a period when there's no generally
accepted cultural or spiritual values, and then the artist is much more isolated and
has to produce his personal values, as it were, and communicate those. But then
I think the artist is in a much more difficult position than when he shares the
assumptions and attitudes and ...

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