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Art - Women-s Order Convention 1987

by Sangharakshita

... and values, broadly speaking, of his age.
Vajrapushpa: We discussed being in tune with the spirit of the age, to be able to
communicate through art one has to be in tune. But on the other hand maybe one
can go even against maybe sometimes, like Blake. Didn't he go against his age,
in a sense?
S: In a sense, he did. But then again Blake had a tradition behind him, even
though it was a minority tradition. And also there were some people at least in his
time with whom he was in close sympathy. There was, for instance, Swedenborg,
whose life overlapped with Blake's. There was Thomas Taylor the Platonist; he
was also alive at that time. But yes, Blake was more than usually isolated. But he
did establish connection in his work with a quite important, even though relatively
minority, tradition, an alternative tradition, one could say.
Vajrapushpa: Do you think that it's a question of artists and writers within the
Movement to find a tradition within our culture to which to attach themselves in
a way - with which ...... ?
S: I think the question arises - and it's a very basic question - do we have a
culture, in the sense, say, that the middle ages had a culture, or that Periclean
Greece had a culture? Do we have a culture in that unified sense?
Vajrapushpa: I was thinking exactly that ...... what is there to find, what elements
of tradition, either past or present, are there in a way to live with.......
S: Yes. But some people try to salvage bits and pieces of tradition, or to establish
connection with a particular tradition. T.S. Eliot did that, didn't he? He decided
in the end that he was - what was it? - Anglican in religion, royalist in politics and
classicist in literature. But he was very much in the minority.
But, coming back to Blake, I think that though he made a noble effort, and though
his was a very great achievement, I think he suffered from being in a minority, or
suffered in being so much out of tune with his age. He had to forge a mythology
of his own, which isn't very easily intelligible, which seems quite bizarre to the
casual reader; and there are very great passages in his works, but did he actually
produce a unified work of art, except in a few lyrics? It's very doubtful. He had
just to struggle against so much, and so much of his creative energy had to go into
that struggle, it seems.
So I think an artist is very fortunate if he is in harmony with his age, broadly
speaking. A lot of your work is done for you then. I think the modern view of the
artist as a solitary, lonely voice is just the product of our particular situation, it's
not representative.
__________: Isn't it also a question of being in harmony with a style, I was
thinking our ideals are not in harmony, I don't think, with the age -
S: There isn't a dominant style for the writer or the artist to be in harmony with,
is there? Because nowadays we are quite sophisticated and we know all about the
styles and so on of past ages. If an artist wants, he can produce pictures in ancient
Egyptian style or neo-classical style or medieval style or nineteenth-century style,
or eighteenth century or whatever he pleases. We don't have a style of our own,
it would seem, or at least if we have the possibility it hasn't yet been discovered.
Look at all the different movements in painting, to narrow the field down, in the
course of the present century.
Vajrapushpa: But one couldn't paint a picture like the pre-Raphaelites, for
instance. It just wouldn't .........
S: Well, no, I'm not so sure about that, because the other day in Manchester I went
along to an art gallery, and I found a beautiful pre-Raphaelite painting, as I
thought it was, which I hadn't seen before; and on looking at the date I found that
the painter had died in 1964. I was really quite surprised - yes.
Vajrapushpa: Maybe it applies more even to literature. One couldn't write like
Milton now. ..................
S: Well, one could write in that sort of style; whether one could write with that
sort of genius, of course, that is quite another matter. [Laughter] But in the last
century you've got people writing in Shakespearean blank verse, Miltonic blank
verse, with more or less success.
But we don't have a dominant style. Think of the Gothic style, how characteristic
that is in architecture; but do we have an architectural style which is characteristic
of this age? We don't.
Mallika: But don't we have a recognisable, for example, fifties style in
architecture? Thirties style?
S: Yes, well in a way that proves my point, because if styles change with that
rapidity from decade to decade, it means in a way that there isn't a style. It doesn't
go very deep, doesn't last for very long.
Bodhisri: Bhante, what about abstract art that was created by ..... ?
S: I understand from my artist friends that abstract art is now old hat. There are
different kinds of abstract art.
Bodhisri: The idea of abstract art in itself, not having to tell a story.
S: Mm. But a lot of modern art does tell a story. It's not just abstract art which
is characteristic of our century. For instance, I think it was last year or the year
before last, I went along to the exhibition of modern German art in London. It was
mainly inter-war art, but very little of it was abstract art at all. Abstract art didn't
seem to have reached Germany at that time, or to have been at all important. It
was all representational. So it isn't as though even abstract art, even in that
particular field, dominated the scene completely. It was just one element among
so many others.
More recently, just the other week, I saw the neo-Romantic exhibition in London,
and very little of that is abstract; and that is an important segment of art in the
thirties to fifties in Britain - mainly representational art.
__________: But there is that possibility, which wasn't there before the twentieth
century - so that free verse and abstract art seem to have emerged.
S: Yes, but not, I would say, as dominant, in the sense that analogous styles were
dominant in previous centuries. I'm not even sure it's a style; perhaps it's just a
__________: Maybe it's a new age of lack of style.
S: Well, a new age of chaos.
__________: So does that mean we have more freedom as Buddhist artists for
S: No, I don't think - it might seem that we have more, but I think actually we
have less. It's like trying to speak or to write a poem without observing the laws
of grammar or rules of grammar; that doesn't enable you to say more, it enables
you to say less. The rules of grammar enable you to say more, to express more.
But anyway, we've strayed away from this point of 'Could you define the process,
the point, where the personal crosses over and becomes the universal?' I'd say -
if I had to say something at all - it's the point where the personal, in the sense of
the individual, becomes the most personal, the most individual; where you give
the strongest and most intense and clearest expression to your own individual
feeling. That becomes universal. Everybody with those feelings, with those
emotions, can participate and can appreciate.
How did this question arise out of the first part, out of Do's image?
Dayanandi: We were wondering what it was about the image that made it not
universal ..........
S: Ah, but, yes, there's a confusion in the sense of Do, because I'm not saying that
the image wasn't universal - yes, I think it was universal to the extent that it
expressed someone's genuinely individual vision. But it wasn't a vision in which
a sufficient number of people, apparently, were able to participate. It raised too
many questions, as it were.
Mallika: Yes, that's how it arose. Because we'd heard that many people objected
to it. We had quite strong feelings about it ourselves.
S: I didn't know about reactions to it here, but I knew about reactions to it in
Ratnasuri: There are objections here, too.
Dayanandi: Very strong, one way or the other.
S: Yes. So it's not enough that it should be universal. If it is to be a rupa in a
public shrine room it must also be general, which is somewhat distinct from the
Dayanandi: What's the difference between general and universal?
S: I suppose in this context it means that the majority of the people using the
shrine room with that image in it should be able to appreciate the universal
expressed in that particular individual way. If they can't, however good the image
is and however adequately it expresses the universal from the point of view of the
artist, it isn't suitable as an image in a public shrine room. It may be, in some
cases, due to lack of aesthetic appreciation on the part of the generality of people.
It's not that the artist is wrong; it's just that the image is not suitable. It's not a
value judgement but a judgement of practicality.
Vajrapushpa: It's a personal interpretation of that image. Surely the image itself
is archetypal. The Buddha ...

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